The new runway and terminal have been completed at Canyonlands Field Airport, but there are still more improvements in the works. Meanwhile, enplanements are up more than 50 percent from the same period last year. At their regular meeting on Aug. 6, the Grand County Airport Board approved recommendations to the Grand County Council for bids on two new construction projects. At the Grand County Council meeting on Aug. 7, both the bids were approved by the council.
The first project will be the creation of two new hardstands, which are concrete parking areas for heavy airplanes. One will be built in front of the terminal to be used by commercial jets. The other will be placed behind the fuel farm and will replace the set of tie-downs currently located there. According to Judd Hill, airport director, once the tie-downs are cut out and a hardstand is put in, the tie-downs will be repainted so “it could be used either by large jets or by small aircraft.” Construction of the hardstands will cause the loss of one helipad and necessitate realignment and expansion of the ramp. Hill said the project will be completely funded by “a million dollar zero-match fund grant” from the Utah Department of Transportation. Armstrong Consulting is handling the design and engineering side of the project while three companies submitted bids to do the construction. The board unanimously decided to recommend the county council award the project to the lowest bidder, Nelco Contractors out of Price.
The second project is the construction of a new apron and tie-downs to allow for the storage of small planes that will be displaced by the new dual-use hardstand. “The bids came in significantly higher than we were expecting,” said Hill. Originally, they planned to borrow $450,000 from the airport’s capital improvement fund over the next three years. However, after “constant communication” with the Federal Aviation Administration, the airport was able to secure a discretionary grant of about $800,000. “Regardless, we still have to do matching funds, in this case two and a half percent, but we don’t have to borrow and pay back half a million dollars from ourselves… so that’s great news,” Hill said.
The board discussed how awarding the second bid to Nelco Contractors would be the most logical; however, the FAA requires their funds only go to the lowest bidder. On the second project, Nielson Construction underbid Nelco. The board voted to recommend awarding the bid to Nielson Construction, and City Council Member Karen Guzman-Newton was the only “nay” vote.
“If we weren’t crazy, we would be doing these at different times,” Hill said of the two projects. He added that they plan to complete them both this fall.
During the meeting, the board also discussed how much financial responsibility airport tenants should have in making improvements on the spaces they lease. The debate was sparked by the request from a concessionaire that the airport pay for a roll-down gate on the space they are renting. Hill made the point that the space could be rented to two individual businesses, which would be complicated by sharing the same gate. “From my perspective, that’s not in the airport’s interest,” he said of the request. Board Member Howard Trenholme added, “If the tenants… participate in capital investing, then they’re more likely to stay in that spot.” Hill also noted that paying for one tenant’s improvements would set a precedent, “It’s opening up pandora’s box for all the businesses out there.” The board’s chair Bill Groff agreed, saying, “I don’t think the county should fund anything like that.”
In the future considerations section of the meeting, the board debated trying to attract other airlines from large cities in the West to offer flights to Moab. Hill pointed out that if the airport were to expand to a wider range of flights, they would lose the essential air service federal subsidies that currently keep ticket prices low. Nevertheless, adding more flights is something “already in the works,” said Hill. He also mentioned using the airport in Cody, Wyo., as a model.
Cody acts as a gateway town to Yellowstone, so it experiences ebbs and flows in tourism numbers that are comparable to Moab. The airport in Cody has seasonal essential air service. “In the winter, when the entire town consists of five or six thousand people and the east gate of Yellowstone is closed, they have essential air service… in their full season they have no federal subsidy,” said Hill. The problem, Hill said, is that without federal subsidies, airlines will only run flights if they are profitable, which is not guaranteed. “Without the essential air service, you get the potential of a higher cost unless there’s a higher demand,” Hill said. He also pointed out one difference between Moab and Cody: the east gate of Yellowstone has 560,000 entrances a year whereas Arches has over two million. According to Hill, a realistic timeline for getting another airline flying to Moab is “two to five years.”
Whether another airline comes or not, the airport continues to grow. Hill said the airport had 5,602 enplanements in May through July, which is up 58 percent from the same period in 2017.