Sonoma County airport lands $10 million federal grant for terminal expansion

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Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport was named the recipient of a $10 million federal grant Wednesday toward a plan to more than triple its terminal space and establish Wine Country as an air travel destination.

The competitive U.S. Department of Transportation funding provides the local airport half of the $20 million it requested in order to add four ticket counters, more gate seating and a full-service restaurant once passengers funnel through a relocated security checkpoint.

Once finished the enlarged terminal will meet passenger gains the past four years that have made the airport the sixth-fastest growing in the nation by percentage of passenger growth, as well as prepare for even more travelers.

“There are airports with less than half our passenger volume with terminals twice our size,” Sonoma County airport manager Jon Stout said of the 15,000-square-foot facility. “We’ll be opening up some walls and offering a better experience that just helps us be efficient and keep the small feel. But we’re hoping for a better sense of place, because the terminal really doesn’t feel like Wine Country.”

The 30,000-square-foot expansion is still in design stage, and expected to take about 2½ years to complete after it gets started in early 2020, Stout said. In the fall, work will begin on another 4,000 square feet of space to reduce passenger congestion at peak hours and completion is expected early next year.

The federal grant, which North Bay congressmen Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, helped push through does not guarantee the other $10 million needed to finish the Santa Rosa airport expansion. But they plan to continue lobbying for the rest of money.

“I advocated to DOT for this much-needed funding because we must ... support our local economy,” Thompson said in a statement. “We all know that our county and our entire region is a world-class destination and we want to work together to boost our local businesses.”

The $10 million is a strong sign the Federal Aviation Administration intends to make good on its investment in the future. Local officials will apply for another $10 million in the next year or two, Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said, citing the goal of making the airport a “statement structure for the community.”

“It’s the first place visitors see, and the first place you see when you return home and fly out of your community,” said Rabbitt, an architect. “It’s kind of the modern-day railroad station of yesteryear. Right now, it’s like a little old bus station. It’s a little cattywampus in terms of how it functions, and not large enough, with people departing conflicting with people arriving.”

With the addition this year of flights east, to Denver International Airport via United Airlines and American Airlines starting a route to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport next month, last year’s passenger total of 440,000 is expected to grow. Projections show the airport will serve nearly 500,000 people in 2019, Stout said.

All told, the airport expansion is estimated to cost about $25 million, which includes a $2 million county match on what could be $20 million in federal contributions. The county would take care of the remaining $3 million to pay for things the federal grant does not cover, such as the additional restaurant space.

“This initial federal support will allow the project to begin construction,” Huffman said in a statement. “It’s a great sign that Sonoma’s airport is expanding to meet the increase in air travel in the North Bay, to support our region’s tourism and economic development, and to help ensure continued passenger safety.”

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

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