Daily Inter Lake: Infrastructure funding to boost airport expansion project

by Bret Anne Serbin

A crane loomed over Glacier Park International Airport on Wednesday as U.S. Sen. Jon Tester spoke about infrastructure funding, including $14.5 million going to the airport in the next five years through the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Tester’s visit came shortly after the Montana Department of Transportation’s annual passenger data revealed GPIA as the state’s second-busiest airport in 2021, behind only Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport.

The airport has traditionally come in fourth in the state for passenger throughput, but last year GPIA leap-frogged over Billings and Missoula to take the second spot.

GPIA Director Rob Ratkowski said the airport set a record of 416,000 enplanements in 2021, up from the previous record of 357,000 in 2019.

That growth has set GPIA up for an expansion. A $100 million project got underway in spring 2021, with plans to triple the airport’s footprint, add two new gates, modernize the baggage claim system and install what will be Flathead County’s only escalator.

Through the infrastructure bill GPIA will have an additional $14.5 million in FAA Airport Improvement Grants over the next five years to put toward constructing or repairing runways and taxiways, as well as making terminal and gate improvements. Ratkowski said airport leadership is still deciding whether to roll the new funding into the $100 million estimate for the project or to expand the scope of the project with the extra funding.

About $2.8 million of the $14.5 total was allocated in December 2021.

TESTER WAS a lead author of the bill, which will provide a total of $144 million for 69 Montana airports. At the airport on Wednesday, Tester called the bill “once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-a-generation legislation.”

“This is a huge step to help build our state’s crumbling infrastructure, create good-paying jobs, and lower costs for Montana families who grow our economy,” Tester said.

He pointed out the flexibility in the bill gives the airport considerable freedom in utilizing the funds.

“It will ensure that we have a world-class airport here for years to come,” Tester said.
“In the uncertain construction climate we currently face, additional funds like those secured by Senator Tester and others in the bipartisan infrastructure bill are critical to make sure that we will continue to build a facility that serves our community,” Ratkowski commented.

He said the terminal expansion project would have been “difficult to accomplish” without federal funding.

Community leaders also celebrated the ripple effects the bill is expected to create throughout the area.

Columbia Falls Mayor Don Barnhart said he is excited the bill will continue to improve access to travel for local residents and create well-paid jobs in the area.

“We look forward to the completion of this project,” Barnhart said.

Chad Sokol, Public Relations Manager for Whitefish Mountain Resort, also shared his enthusiasm for the ways the bill is anticipated to benefit local tourist businesses.

Sokol said 45% of out-of-town visitors to Whitefish Mountain Resort now travel to the area via commercial planes, up from 20% of visitors using the same mode of travel just six years ago.

“We need an airport that can keep pace with this growing demand for air travel,” said Sokol.
In addition to developing the airport, Tester also highlighted the need for Montana to invest in other infrastructure improvements, including internet, roads, bridges and water systems.

“The fact is it’s just not airports where we need improvements,” he said.