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A $250 million Williston airport relocation is edging closer to becoming a reality as one local official is questioning the need for a new facility and its feasibility.

“If they came and wanted to buy my land, I’d be extremely angry,” said Martin Hanson, a Williams County commissioner. “I think they have more important fish to fry rather than building another airport.”

Sloulin Field International Airport experienced a 10-fold increase in passengers from 2009 to 2014 in large part due to record oil activity. Supporters of the $254 million project say the new Williston Basin International Airport, to be completed in 2018, will be a substantial long-term upgrade to the city.

Hanson, disagrees, saying the current facility is adequate if runway upgrades are made to meet Federal Aviation Administration requirements.

“They have reached the peak. They have weathered the storm with what they’ve got,” said Hanson, who has sent a letter to the state’s congressional delegation outlining concerns; all three members are supportive of the relocation.

Hanson estimates a 6-inch asphalt overlay would address runway problems at a reduced cost and questioned why landowners who have owned farmland for generations should give it up.

“My whole objective in this was to get some information out there and get a dialogue going,” Hanson said. “Maybe I’m Don Quixote, maybe I’m just charging at windmills, but somebody has got to say something.”

Overcoming hurdles

Steven Kjergaard, director of the Sloulin Field International Airport, said receiving FAA approval of its environmental assessment for the new site in September and $27 million in federal funding in early October were major milestones.

“We’ve also started the process for land acquisition. We’re planning on finishing up the land acquisition process by the end of winter or early spring,” Kjergaard said.

State dollars totaling $59 million have been dedicated to the project.

The city is negotiating with the FAA for funding through the agency’s Letter of Intent Program, which helps fund large-scale airport projects and requires reimbursement over a period of years. He said the funding request is for $120 million.

A 2-mile road off of the city’s new truck bypass will lead to the facility, which is part of the construction cost. Kjergaard said discussions with the state have begun over future road maintenance.

Ground is tentatively to be broken at the 1,540-acre site in the spring.

“We’re looking at completing all construction by fall of 2018. It’s a very aggressive timetable,” Kjergaard said.

The existing 740-acre site will remain in operation until the new airport is complete. Then it is to be sold and redeveloped. Money from the sale and ongoing airport revenues would pay off the remaining cost of the new facility.

Kjergaard said the airport is operating outside of FAA standards, such as published weight restrictions. Nearly $240 million would be needed to bring the existing airport into compliance compared to $254 million for a new facility.

“It’s not as simple as adding asphalt on the current site,” Kjergaard said.

A complete reconstruction and widening of the runway and moving the taxiway would be required as well as leveling off a portion of the runway at one end, he said.

“We’re not building a Taj Mahal,” Kjergaard said.

The city plans to follow the federal Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act of 1970, which outlines the land acquisition process for public airports.

Kjergaard said increased traffic at the airport also justifies the need.

In September, 8,497 enplanements were recorded at the airport, down nearly 20 percent from 10,587 during the same month in 2014. Year-to-date 2015 enplanements out of Williston were at 86,254 through September, down 1.4 percent from 87,521 through the first nine months of 2014.

In 2009, there were 11,229 enplanements in Williston for the year; in 2014, there were 114,281.

'Risky move'

Williams County Commission Chairman Dan Kalil agreed with Hanson.

“This is a pretty dang risky move. I’m concerned about the impact on the farmland and the county,” Kalil said.

Kalil said, since last fall’s decline in oil prices, officials have repeatedly adjusted estimates as to when prices may rise again and stimulate more activity. He said he recently flew from Williston to Minneapolis and back on planes half full, which made him question the feasibility of a new airport.

“How further into debt are we going to go? Of all the things this community needs, we’re going to spend a quarter of a billion on the airport?” Kalil said.

Smooth landing

North Dakota Aeronautics Commissioner Kyle Wanner said the site chosen was the best option since it’s on flat ground, near a city and highway as well as not too close to transmission lines or oilfield infrastructure.

“We looked at all the viable options and determined that this was the best option. We have to be looking, 40, 50, 60 years in the future,” said Wanner, adding that he’s confident the project will proceed since the initial federal dollars were awarded.

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(Reach Nick Smith at 701-250-8255 or 701-223-8482 or at nick.smith@bismarcktribune.com.)

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