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Federal funds help Sonoma County airport fast-track $30 million terminal expansion project

An influx of federal funding is expected to deliver the $30 million expansion of the terminal at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport almost a year ahead of schedule despite the sudden downturn in global air travel.

The regional airfield won a $10 million Federal Aviation Administration grant toward the capital construction project last year, which positioned the increasingly popular travel hub for another $10 million within the next two years. The airport is now in the immediate running for that second helping of money — and eligible for more than $19 million more in federal economic stimulus assistance related to the coronavirus pandemic — to start building the 30,000-square-foot expansion this fall.

“We’re going to do everything we can get as much of that $19 million as possible, but the FAA has to bless it and sign off, and we’re just starting those conversations,” said Jon Stout, Sonoma County airport manager. “Fingers crossed and we’re cautiously optimistic, but everything we’re seeing should apply and it should work out.”

The CARES Act signed by President Donald Trump last month included $10 billion for the nation’s ailing airports hit hard by the sharp drop in air travel, and was the result of negotiations by Congressional Democrats, according to Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. California was awarded more than $1 billion in emergency airport aid for capital projects and their workforces, with the North Coast’s municipal and regional airstrips set to receive about $38 million, including the money directed to the airport just outside Santa Rosa.

“The airports across the North Bay and North Coast are directly impacted by the unprecedented travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders while still providing for the continued work of essential employees,” Huffman said in a statement. “This CARES Act funding is a vital lifeline but it will only go so far, and Congress will continue prioritizing relief for all those who need it, including those who work in the travel industry.”

The Sonoma County airport has seen the number of daily flights cut by two-thirds and its passenger counts reduced to a trickle following state and county shelter-in-place orders due to the public health crisis. Airport passenger traffic tumbled 40% in March, compared with a year ago, and the airport has already recorded in April an all-time low of just 10 people passing through security in a single day.

“March was very low and April will be even lower,” Stout said.

Similar impacts led San Francisco International Airport to delay a terminal expansion project, which was supposed to begin this summer. Instead, the billion-dollar renovation of Terminal 3 West, which would add 190,000 square feet to the area of SFO that houses United Airlines, will be postponed until at least October.

Sonoma County’s project, meanwhile, is much smaller but will more than triple the size of the airport’s existing entrance and passenger check-in area. Under the latest design plans, the 1960s-era main building will be updated and grow by more than 30,000 square feet to accommodate the growing popularity of the airport, which handled more than 488,000 passengers in 2019.

The new layout will add four ticketing counters, moving each of the airport’s air carriers inside to the main lobby. It will move the rental car companies to another area, relocate baggage claim and offer a restaurant beyond security. A separate construction project currently underway at the airport will also upgrade the tented passenger area with more seating, relocate the security checkpoint and add a second screening line and add permanent bathrooms outside the terminal.

That roughly $4 million project, which will be paid for by passenger ticketing fees, is on track to be finished by the end of August, paving the way for the terminal expansion to begin this fall. Terminal construction, which was set to be phased based on available funding, was expected to be completed by the end of 2022, but is now scheduled to be done by early 2022 because of the front-loaded capital grants plus extra emergency dollars.

While giving a boost to the local economy through the public works project, the county may also be able to take advantage of savings that can arise in financial recessions from reduced labor and material costs.

As it is, the stimulus money should help cover previously required local matching dollars on the federal grants, dropping the county’s overall contribution from $8 million to $4 million, according to Stout, which the airport will take out a loan to pay.

“Infrastructure is one of those things governments can invest in when the economy turns because it puts a lot of people to work. It’s a big economic engine,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who is a board member for several regional transportation agencies. “With the pandemic, at least there’s something on a positive note that can come of it and we can move forward in a much quicker way to get the airport to where it needs to be.”

How long it might take the air travel industry to rebound, and the more robust passenger numbers returning with it, remains the unknown variable. But when they do, Sonoma County’s expanded airport terminal should be better positioned to welcome them back, Stout said.

“In the long-term, we will get back to where we were. I don’t believe it will be in 2020, and it may not be in 2021,” he said. “But ultimately we will get back to that level of service because we do have the demand. We have shown that we can support this type of activity with our market potential, and have proven ourselves in the airline industry.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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