Airport Financing:

Smaller Airports Face Future Funding Shortfalls

T-RCED-99-96: Published: Feb 22, 1999. Publicly Released: Feb 22, 1999.

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John H. Anderson, Jr
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed airport funding issues as they apply to smaller airports, focusing on: 1) how much funding has been made available to airports, particularly smaller airports, for their capital development and what are the sources of these funds; (2) comparing airports' plans for future development with current funding levels; and (3) what effect will various proposals to increase or make better use of existing funding have on smaller airports' ability to fulfill their capital development plans.

GAO noted that: (1) in 1998, GAO reported that the 3,304 airports that make up the federally supported national airport system obtained about $7 billion from federal and private sources for capital development; (2) the nation's 3,233 smaller airports accounted for 22 percent of this total, or about $1.5 billion; (3) as a group, smaller airports depend heavily on federal grants, receiving half of their funding from the federally-funded Airport Improvement Program (AIP) and the rest from airport bonds, state grants, and passenger facility charges; (4) by contrast, the 71 largest airports in the national airport system obtained $5.5 billion in funding, mostly from tax-exempt bonds and relied on AIP for only 10 percent of their funding; (5) small airports planned to spend nearly $3 billion per year for capital development during 1997 through 2001, or $1.4 billion per year more than they were able to fund in 1996; (6) smaller airports' planned development consists of projects eligible for AIP grants, like runways, and projects not eligible for grants, like terminal retail space; (7) at least $945 million and as much as $1.4 billion of smaller airports' planned development that are eligible for grants may not be funded on an annual basis; (8) the difference between funding and planned development is much greater for smaller commercial and general aviation airports than it is for large airports; (9) several initiatives to increase or make better use of existing funding have emerged in recent years, including increasing the amount of AIP funding and raising the maximum amount airports can levy in passenger facility charges; (10) under current formulas, increasing the amount of AIP funding would help smaller airports more than larger airports, while raising passenger facility charges would mainly help larger airports; and (11) other initiatives for making better use of federal grant monies, such as AIP block grants to states, have primarily been directed toward smaller airports, but none appears to offer a major breakthrough in reducing the shortfall between funding and the levels airports plan to spend on development.

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