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Airport infrastructure bill flies through Senate Transportation

The departures entrance to the Rapid City Regional Airport.
Rapid City Regional Airport
The departures entrance to the Rapid City Regional Airport.

A legislative committee has advanced a bill aimed at improving South Dakota's airport infrastructure.

Senate Bill 144 would create a $90 million pool for the state to invest in air infrastructure over the next five years. That breaks down to $18 million yearly through 2029.

The proposal was brought by Rapid City Republican Sen. David Johnson and saw strong support in the Senate Transportation Committee Wednesday.

Sioux Falls Airport executive director Dan Letellier said while traditionally airports receive funding from the federal government, that hasn’t kept pace with inflation.

“Construction costs, especially in the last five to six years, have risen 300 to 400 percent," Letellier said. "So, there’s a huge gap in what that traditional federal funding source is being able to provide.”

Letellier said while over $7 billion dollars of requests were made to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Improvement Program, only $1 billion was available for every airport nationwide.

However, for Blair Trital with the state Bureau of Finance and Management, the possible precedent of providing state funding was a bridge too far.

“By funding terminal projects at a considerably higher level than previously done and relying on general funds to fund airport terminal projects, this bill does represent a shift in how the state funds airports," Trital said. "It’s not something that’s normally funded through the legislature, and it’s not currently accounted for in the budget.”

When asked, Trital declined to describe airports as “infrastructure.” This despite the fact Rapid City and Sioux Falls Regional Airports contribute nearly a billion dollars to the South Dakota economy via tourism, jobs, and developments. That’s according to Letellier and Elevate Rapid City representative Garth Wadsworth.

The committee was inclined to agree. Sioux Falls Democratic Sen. Liz Larson said she’s seen firsthand the utility of quality air infrastructure – including its use in health care.

“For me, airports are a way to have access to very specialized services which (communities) aren’t going to get unless they have a really well functioning airport in their area," Larson said.

The committee advanced the bill to the Joint Committee on Appropriations unanimously.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture