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Regional air service boosted with expansion

Dirt is tossed during Saturday's groundbreaking ceremonies for an $8.9 million Bemidji Regional Airport Terminal expansion and renovation project. From left are Airport Authority Executive Director Harold Van Leeuwen, Rep. John Persell, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, Rep. Brita Sailer, Airport Authority Chairman Marshall Froyd and Deputy FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

"Regional airports are such an important part of our aviation system in that they provide a very essential level of air service for communities just like Bemidji, and we need to support that," the FAA's second-ranking official said Saturday.

As groundbreaking ceremonies were held Saturday for the Bemidji Regional Airport's $8.9 million terminal expansion and renovation project, Deputy Federal Aviation Administration Administer Michael Huerta was joined by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., and U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar in making remarks.

Oberstar used the occasion to announce that this fall Delta Airlines will not cut back its flights to Bemidji from four to two, but rather from four to three and it may even keep four daily flights.

"They made that commitment Friday," Oberstar said. "When I pointed out there is a 65 percent load factor on those four flights, 184 passengers a day, that this is better than Northwest does in some of their big hubs."

Delta needs to pay attention to the local loyalty and promotion that is given by all the area communities and local chambers of commerce, said Oberstar, who chairs a major transportation panel.

"Delta needs to honor that local commitment and they're going to do that," the Chisholm Democrat said.

"This project is indicative of what happens when you put together the partnership between the FAA, between the local communities, with all the support you have from your congressional delegation, your state representatives, everyone coming together to support something that's extremely important for this community and for the whole aviation system," Huerta said.

The project includes the use of seven grants and is mostly funded with Airport Improvement Program funds, said Harold Van Leeuwen, Bemidji Airport Authority executive director.

"It really is a great day," said Huerta, making his first official appearance as the deputy administrator after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate only a week ago.

"This terminal in and of itself is very significant -- a doubling in size, which is really going to help passenger flow," Huerta said. "It's going to deal with the congestion that you have when you're turning flights here in the airport

"We in the FAA are just delighted to be supportive of this and doing what we can to be a part of this important day," he added. "I look forward to a great project coming in on time and under budget, like everything Van does."

About 40 people attended the ceremonies, most of them elected officials or local, state and federal officials. The group included Assistant to the Deputy for Government Affairs Rod Hall, Director FAA Great Lakes Region Barry Cooper and Chris Roy, director of aeronautics for the state of Minnesota.

The work in Bemidji only proves that Congress needs to approve the FAA reauthorization bill, which includes airport infrastructure funding, said Klobuchar.

"I'd like to show my colleagues airports like this airport right here, and the importance to the regional economy so they can stop fighting about how many slots we have at National Airport," she said.

The bill is hung up in the Senate, where senators are disputing the number of new gates to add to the airport that services Washington, D.C.

"There are a lot of other important things for the country and a reason to get that bill done," she said.

"This project is incredibly important to this area," Klobuchar added, praising local economic development efforts and "Bemidji Leads!" "You really do an amazing job ... all working together here to make such a strong case for the importance of transportation, the importance of keeping these projects strong, because we're only going to be able to move to the next century's economy if we have the next-century transportation system."

The Bemidji Regional Airport is an important part of that, she said.

"That's why we're working hard to get some of the development funding here," Klobuchar said, referring to appropriations she helped secure for the airport's Jobs Opportunity Building Zones site.

The United States should see more foreign tourists as Klobuchar's Travel Promotion Act became law, a bill designed to heavily market the U.S. abroad, paid by a $10 add-on to visas.

"It's something we've been trying for years to try to get some more foreign visitors, including from Canada, into our country," she said. "Those that come spend $4,000 apiece, and certainly airports are a big piece of this."

As a sidelight, Klobuchar said Explore Minnesota celebrated the bill signing by sending her bobble heads of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.

She put them on a table, the same table at which she met Supreme Court Justice-designee Elena Kagan. A large picture in the Washington Post showed the meeting, and "those Bemidji bobble heads," she said.

"We're trying to everything we can to promote this area," Klobuchar chuckled. "And certainly a part of promoting this area is having this airport strong."

Klobuchar said she appreciated the "tenacity" of local officials and contractors to push forward the project no matter what the climate (the work will continue through the winter) and that the project will "continue to improve our transportation system to grow our economy."

Oberstar, chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was more critical of the FAA reauthorization being locked up in the Senate.

He talked of the $1.4 billion included in the federal economic stimulus bill, of which funded the Bemidji airport's new runway aprons, and projects at 1,000 airports. The FAA reauthorization bill includes passenger facility charges which also help fund airport improvements.

The Bemidji project will provide its matching funds through the PFCs, which tacks on $4.50 per passenger flying into or out of Bemidji. The House bill boosted it to $7, but the Senate is stalled at $5.

He called several Republican senators "right-wing knuckle-draggers" for blocking PFCs, which he said was originally a GOP initiative. "This is a user fee, this is a Republican initiative," he said.

"It's a local option, nobody has to impose it, it's not a requirement, the users are paying,""Oberstar said. But the funding can be used in addition to the Airport Improvement Program. PFC now accounts for $2.3 billion in additional capital investment for taxiway, runway and apron improvements and 75 percent to airport projects now covered by AIP.

"Now its being held up by people who just don't understand aviation, don't care about aviation," Oberstar said.

He called Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl "the anti-earmark guy" and that Kyl "wants a huge, multimillion-dollar earmark for US Airways at National Airport to add 32 slots on top of the 10 we provided in the House bill, with most going to US Airways."

Not going to happen, Oberstar said, calling it immoral and illegal.

"A day like this happens because we have a partnership," he said, noting himself, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, DFL-7th District, and Klobuchar and fellow DFL Sen. Al Franken, and local legislators. "All of us working together make these things happen.

"But none of it happens without local initiative," Oberstar added. "We're not Johnny Appleseeds and go around the country and sprinkling pixie dust of federal grants everywhere. You have to ask for it, you have to justify it, you have to have support, you have to show it's necessary - and you've done that."

Local officials have also shown increased use in the airport and increased ridership, he said. "That is essential ... and is part of our tourism."

People want to spend their time in recreation activities, not driving, he said.

"That's why we have the airport, that's why we have aviation, and that's why these improvements are so critical," Oberstar said.

Stalling on the FAA reauthorization bill is "slowing down the business of the public," he said. "You're leading the way here in Bemidji, and I'm proud of what you've accomplished and I look forward to seeing this great expansion."

Van Leeuwen said the $8.9 million project will double the square footage of the current facility without adding a second story.

The $8.9 million project has $1.1 million in local funds paid from PFCs, $800,000 from the state for areas not eligible for federal funding and the rest in FAA grants.