Officials with the Westmoreland County Airport Authority believe a portion of the county’s COVID-19 relief funding could be used to improve safety at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport and boost the Unity Township facility’s chances of potentially landing a second commercial carrier.
The authority on Wednesday announced it is seeking a $7 million share of the county’s $105 million American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) money to help fund a proposed expansion of the airport’s terminal building. The authority’s funding request, aimed at supporting the $20-million terminal project, will be included in public comments at an Oct. 28 hearing where commissioners will accept ideas on how the county’s ARP allotment could be spent.
Commissioner Gina Cerilli Thrasher said in an email she could not comment on any specific request until the final federal restrictions on the funding are released. County officials said final guidelines on how ARP funding have yet to be released, and they are hoping they include the ability to use funding on airport-related work such as the terminal project.
“It was great to see the airport put in the request for ARP funding … This is exactly the point of the commissioners collecting ideas and requests from the public,” Thrasher said. “ARP dollars is a once in a lifetime opportunity for Westmoreland.”
The commissioners are holding public hearing sessions from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 28, at the Westmoreland County Community College Science Hall Amphitheater at the college’s Youngwood campus.
Pre-registration, which is not required but encouraged, can be completed by visiting co.westmoreland.pa.us/arpahearing before 4 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 27. Written comments can be emailed to ARPAComments@co.westmoreland.pa.us or mailed to Vera Spina, chief clerk, 2 N. Main St., Suite 101, Greensburg, PA 15601.
Gabe Monzo, the authority’s executive director, said the authority "thought it would be in our best interest to get it to the commissioners so they know exactly what we're after. I didn't want them to be surprised by it."
The proposed two-story terminal expansion, per a news release, would double the size of the terminal while adding two additional passenger boarding bridges and another security checkpoint. Additionally, the proposed project would provide more than 14,000 square feet of new usable space on each floor and include areas that could be leased to outside concession tenants to generate revenue for the authority and provide goods/services to airport visitors.
The authority said based on negotiations with other airlines, the two new passenger boarding bridges to load and unload passengers are “a necessity” to potentially add another airline to supplement Spirit Airlines, the airport’s lone commercial carrier. The authority also noted it will need to “provide associated apron improvements to support the increased weight of the larger aircraft using the field.”
The authority said benefits of the proposed terminal expansion are many.
It noted that doubling the capacity of the airport’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening area from one line to two “would do much more than simply move passengers through more quickly. It would also provide safer dedicated security screening space where existing line areas are currently very limited and cramped. This issue of creating more spacious public areas to allow passengers to ‘spread out’ rose to critical prominence during the pandemic; it will also be a critical need in all future development plans. This will help us to meet CDC recommendations now and into the future.”
It also noted that increasing airport capacity from two passenger loading bridge gates to three “would provide more boarding space and replace the airport’s initial (now aging) bridge, which served its purpose well, but is rapidly approaching obsolescence. This would also allow us to meet current and future CDC recommendations.”
Additionally, the authority noted that increasing the airport’s holding capacity, allowing three aircraft on the ground at the same time instead of two, “not only increases the potential number of passengers, but more space for social distancing, as well. Expanded holding areas also provide a better fit with current and future CDC recommendations. The project would also provide additional storage space for aircraft servicing and maintenance equipment. Much of this crucial equipment has been acquired but the airport, but those needs continue to grow.”
Monzo said the expansion plan is an update of a 2015 master plan for the airport. The facility has made significant upgrades over the last few years, including widening and strengthening the airport runway, adding a second boarding bridge and expanding the passenger holding area.
The authority noted it has $3 million in funding in place, via airport passenger facility charges, and another $3 million would come from federal aviation entitlement. The authority is also seeking $7 million in state Bureau of Aviation grant funding, which requires a local match, which is the reason it is asking county officials for a share of ARP money.
Monzo said potentially receiving money via ARP funding would avoid the authority's need to seek a bond issue for the project.
''It's a process to cobble (the money together), but we think it's a great opportunity for the airport," he said.
Monzo estimated the terminal building could take roughly three years to finish if funding is secured, along with "tweaking" the plan to include current health guidelines.
"Everything else is done," he said. "This is really a shovel-ready project."
According to the release, the authority contends "that at least 10% of that should be funneled into a project that will enhance the safety and welfare of potentially 300,000 people who flow through the terminal annually and bolster the region’s economy by some $226 million a year, according to transportation officials."
In an email to the commissioners, airport consultant Michael Boyd of Boyd Group International noted that the group’s “research indicates that airport such as Westmoreland County have enormous post-pandemic growth potential, as long as they have the facilities to attract and accommodate the growth expected in airline traffic across the (country). The terminal expansion planned at (Arnold Palmer Regional Airport) meets these necessary criteria.”