Plane taking off
A plane takes off at the Portland International Airport. (Port of Portland)

Airport managers in Eugene and Redmond are already looking ahead to even more grant money to expand terminals

The new federal infrastructure package set to bring more than $200 million to Oregon airports couldn’t have come at a better time for Eugene’s Mahlon Sweet Field.

The airport, already the second largest in Oregon, just added service from an eighth airline and started a year-long study into what it needs to meet current and future demands. The newest airline, Southwest, is operating out of  a cobbled-together space under a concourse, and the airport is running out of spaces to park airplanes overnight. 

“We’re kind of bursting at the seams,” Airport Director Cathryn Stephens said.

Stephens doesn’t yet know exactly how much money the Eugene airport will receive from the federal infrastructure package, which President Joe Biden signed in November.

However, she’s expecting an additional $3.9 million annually starting next year in entitlement funding, or money provided to airports based on their number of passengers. The Eugene airport now receives about $3.6 million annually. 

“Basically doubling our entitlement funding over the next five years should get us to a really good place where we’ll be able to build out those projects that need to be done before we could even look at any expansion,” she said. 

About $175 million of the $211 million available over the next five years will be split among Oregon’s six commercial airports in Portland, Eugene, North Bend, Medford, Redmond and Pendleton, said Betty Stansbury, director of the Oregon Aviation Department.

Elsewhere in the state, pilots and passengers in private aircraft will likely get smoother takeoffs and landings as roughly $36 million will be divided among the state’s 51 general aviation airports, Stansbury said. Such airports typically service local communities and pilots. Oregon had about 10,400  licensed pilots in 2020, the most recent year in which the Federal Aviation Administration reported data. 

Airports will also have access to additional grant funding, through the Federal Aviation Administration and a  grant program run through the Oregon department. 

“For most of our airports, maintaining their existing pavement is a big capital expense,” Stansbury said. “My agency has a tiny grant program where we provide a little bit of assistance with their match on their federal grants, and what we’re seeing in those grant applications is predominantly pavement, repairing runways, taxiways and ramps.” 

The new federal law also created a $200 million pot each year for terminal improvements at small hub airports such as Redmond Municipal Airport.

Fred LeLacheur, airport engineer at Redmond, is already making plans. 

Redmond’s Roberts Field is set to receive about $18 million over the next five years from the new law, LeLacheur said. But he’s most excited about the prospect of a grant that could help pay for the roughly $200 million project five years in the making. 

The project, now starting its design phase, would add about 110,000 square feet to a terminal building that’s now 130,000 square feet. That includes a significantly larger hold area for people who have gone through security and are waiting on their planes.

The Redmond airport serves as the the hub for central Oregon for connecting commercial flights to larger airports. Seven airlines, including United and Delta, serve Redmond.

The expansion should be enough for the next 20 years, LeLacheur said. And the timeline should work out in Redmond’s favor, even if the airport faces stiff competition for grant money. 

“By the time this funding goes through and the FAA determines how they’re going to administer the program and the grant money, we should be far enough along that we can say we’re shovel ready,” he said. “It’s never been a better time in my career as an airport engineer, that we have the opportunity to do a big project like this and have money hopefully available to do it.” 

In Eugene, Stephens is also hoping for even more funding from grants as her airport continues to grow. 

Previously, the Eugene airport lost a lot of would-be passengers to Portland, a two-and-a-half-hour drive or three-hour train ride away. But it gained passengers back in 2020, as more people opted to use the smaller, closer local airport. 

More passengers meant more flights, and the airport added three new airlines, including Southwest, over the past year. It’s become a chicken-and-egg situation, Stephens said – the more people who fly from the airport, the more flights, and the more flights, the more people will choose to fly from Eugene instead of driving up to Portland. Eugene surpassed its pre-pandemic height of 1.2 million passengers per year, while Portland reported close to 20 million passengers before the pandemic. 

Stephens said she expects the study underway now will show that the airport needs between five and seven additional gates and more ticket counters. Like LeLacheur, she said the grant timeline should work out to help the airport receive additional funding. 

Kama Simonds, public information officer for the Port of Portland, said the Portland International Airport will compete for funding, though it’s too early to point to specific projects. 

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