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Duluth airport warns of dire consequences if no transportation bill passed

The Duluth International Airport. (file / News Tribune)

Brooks Johnson

Forum News Service

If the state Legislature doesn't come through on a transportation bill this year, the Duluth Airport Authority warns that Sky Harbor Airport could close, the Air National Guard 148th Fighter Wing could be relocated and hundreds of jobs could be lost.

That's the dire plea sent in a letter from airport authority board president Patrick Mullen to Gov. Mark Dayton, who on Monday night vetoed a transportation finance bill that contained $6.6 million for runway reconstruction at Duluth International Airport and runway realignment at Sky Harbor.

At stake is $45 million in federal money that requires the state to throw in a 10 percent match; projects at the airports total more than $60 million.

"If the state match is not awarded in 2017, it is likely the federal (discretionary) funding will be withdrawn from the project," Mullen wrote.

Since a transportation bill is required to keep many state agencies and projects running, it is likely a compromise bill will be passed either in the regular session that ends May 22 or in a special session, which appears likelier every day.

"I'm not overly concerned about having to turn back federal money at this point," Duluth Airport Authority Executive Director Tom Werner told the News Tribune. "We're just going to continue to stay active and make sure our voices are heard."

While the airport's operations are self-sustaining, it relies on grants for capital projects.

Werner said there are several aviation issues in front of the Legislature, which remains at an impasse over spending bills.

"Certainly we're advocating for passage of the transportation bill with the hopes that politics won't get in the way," he said. "The gridlock at the Capitol is very concerning, certainly in light of the fact that both sides agree we need the bill."

The work at DLH, necessary to replace the 60-year-old main runway, has already hit snags as the airport works around the needs of AAR Corp. and attempts the reconstruction in phases.

Sky Harbor's runway needs a realignment to come into compliance with state Department of Transportation standards. The airport authority is counting on $930,000 in state money to make that happen.