Safety concerns and a short runway prompted Lane County to take advantage of a state aviation improvement program that ultimately might help them build a new $3 million airport on 320 acres of land south of Dighton.
Three years ago, the county contacted the Kansas Department of Transportation about getting a grant through the Kansas Airport Improvement Program to help renovate the existing airport, which includes a 2,400-foot runway located northwest of Dighton.
Created as part of the 1999 Kansas Comprehensive Transportation Program, KDOT's Kansas Airport Improvement Program provides about $3 million per year for airport improvement projects across the state. It is designed to help improve and maintain public use airports. Stated program objectives include maintaining "very good" runway condition ratings, reducing drive time to air ambulance pick up locations, improving safety and enhancing economic development.
Lane County conducted a $30,000 feasibility study, 95 percent of which was paid by the state through the program. It concluded that Dighton's airport had too many safety problems to be improved and recommended building a completely new airport, according to Jon Risley, Lane County commissioner.
The current airport is hemmed in by railroad tracks on the south, right next to the runway, and high voltage power lines on the north.
"We can't land fixed-wing medevac, and many people just don't want to land on that short of a runway. You have to come down, set her down pretty good. I'm not a pilot, so I don't know, but unless you're experienced with that, I'm sure it's kind of scary," he said.
The county also learned it would cost $3.2 million to bury 600 feet of power lines, which is around the cost of building a new airport with a longer runway. As a result, the state's aviation improvement program looked attractive.
"It's an opportunity, we felt, that with KDOT's help we could have a runway and an airport that's useable," Risley said.
Lane County, with a population of 1,750 according to the last census, qualified for a nearly $610,000 matching grant from the state for land acquisition and tower removal, with the state picking up 90 percent of the cost and the county providing the other 10 percent.
About a year ago, in September 2011, the county commission approved a contract to buy land from Ron and Neoma Conner for $576,000, with the county's share being $57,600. Lane County has subsequently applied for a $2.7 million grant through the same program, with the same 90/10 cost split, for construction.
It may be December or January before the county learns whether its grant application has been approved, but Risley is optimistic.
"We are optimistic. It's working for us very well," he said.
If and when the grant is approved, Risley estimated construction might begin in the latter part of 2013, though it's probably too soon to speculate.
"It may be later than that. It depends when we receive monies as to when we could start letting out contracts," he said.
When completed, the new airport will have a 4,000-foot runway free of any surrounding obstacles like power lines. Build time is uncertain, but Risley doesn't think it should take an extensive amount of time, considering the topography of the site.
"That's up to engineers, but I don't believe there will be a lot of grading. It's a fairly flat piece of ground. But then I'm not an engineer. I really can't say for sure," he said.
The county has not decided or had much discussion about the fate of the old airport, and likely won't until the new one is under construction.
Jesse Romo, deputy director of air space and special projects in KDOT's aviation division, said 130 of the state's 138 public use airports are eligible for the program. In addition, the state legislature increased to $5 million the annual funding for the program in the comprehensive transportation program passed two years ago.
The airport improvement program has been successful, Romo said, and it appears to be popular. Applications for funding in fiscal year 2014 are already close to $50 million.
"We have had at least $20 million each year in grant requests for improvement projects," Romo said. "We've seen significant improvement in the pavement conditions across the state. It's been a dramatic improvement from near deterioration to really good conditions."
In addition to improved runways, taxiways and tarmacs, the program is helping the state meet one of its safety goals of ensuring 95 percent of the Kansas population is within 30 minutes of an airport that can provide air ambulance service.
Improved airports also can contribute to the economic health of the state.
"In aggregate, our airports contribute over $10 billion to the economy," Romo said. "Those numbers were collected in 2009, 2010, in the middle of the recession, and still we had a significant impact. For $5 million, we get $10 billion in return."