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Thanks to $1 trillion infrastructure bill, Peoria Airport's air traffic control tower could get much needed facelift

Gene Olson and Cheri Bustos after infrastructure bill passage.jpg
Hannah Alani
/
WCBU
Peoria's Director of Airports Gene Olson, left, and U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Quad Cities, stand inside the Peoria International Airport on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021 weeks after the passage of the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill.

Built in 1959, the Peoria International Airport’s air traffic control tower predates the creation of the Federal Aviation Authority.

Today, the tower is laden with asbestos, lacking WiFi and unable to house all necessary employees under one roof.

Because the tower is owned by the local airport and not the FAA, Director of Airports Gene Olson has been unable to tap into federal funding to address the tower’s dire conditions.

That’s about to change.

Thanks to hyper-specific language in the recently passed federal infrastructure bill, local airport authorities can soon apply for federal grants to bring locally-owned air traffic control towers up to code.

U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Quad Cities, said this funding is critical for both the Peoria International Airport as well as the Chicago-Rockford International Airport.

“This is an existential project,” she said. “If we don’t have an up-to-date air traffic control tower … you’re talking about the very existence of this airport.”

Olson will be able to apply for federal funds next month.

While there is no guarantee that the airport will receive the money, Bustos said she is confident things will shake out in Peoria’s favor.

“The FAA thinks my office is really a pain,” she said. “They do. And I think if they want us off their backs, they’re going to make sure that we have this money.”

Cheri Bustos at Peoria Airport.jpg
Hannah Alani
/
WCBU
U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Quad Cities) stands inside the Peoria International Airport on Monday, Dec. 6, weeks after the passage of the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill.

Standing alongside Bustos inside the airport on Monday, Olson said he was ecstatic to see President Joe Biden sign the infrastructure bill into law.

“I just turned 60 this year,” he said. “My goal is to get this tower replaced and built and operating before I retire. … It’s exciting. It was kind of one of those ‘fist pump’ moments. This keeps us in the game.”

‘I’m ecstatic’

There are between 30 and 35 full-time air traffic control employees working out of the tower today.

Tim Ekvall is president of the Peoria chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union.

He detailed a litany of challenges associated with the building:

  • Nearly a dozen technical operations employees would ideally work side by side with air traffic controllers, but due to space constraints, they work off-site.
  • Though the Peoria International Airport is a prominent training facility for new air traffic controllers, recruits must drive to Moline to use an air traffic simulator because the technology also cannot physically fit into the Peoria tower.
  • Employees are banned from the basement, second, third and fourth floors due to asbestos; tornado evacuation plans are not air quality-tested.
  • The tower cannot install WiFi due to asbestos.
  • An asbestos event in 2018 cost the FAA $75,000 for air sampling.
  • When it rains, water leaks into elevator shafts and multiple windows leak; a new $60,000 roof constructed in 2018 is intended to last 3-5 years.
  • There is little-to-no hot water in bathrooms.
  • Due to the tower's location and height, employees cannot see a taxiway, holding pad or medevac helicopter base; at times, staff must leave the tower and circle the airport in a minivan to see what’s happening outside.
  • Decades-old cables running underneath the airport are out of date and inhibit communication.
  • The tower lacks sprinklers and is not fire safety-compliant; to bring the tower into compliance would cost $600,000.
  • The tower is not properly grounded for lightning.
  • Support beams in the basement are not checked for integrity.

During a tour of the tower, Bustos said she observed caulk holding dripping water away electrical cables. She also said she had to move "sideways" to fit through a door to enter the restroom.
Ekvall said a new tower would help him, his coworkers and countless trainees do their jobs more safely and comfortably.

“I’m ecstatic,” Ekvall said. “I really did not think, that by the time nine years rolls around when I’m eligible to retire, that I would see a new tower at all.”

Tim Ekvall.jpg
Hannah Alani
/
WCBU
Tim Ekvall has worked in air traffic control for 15 years. He is the president of the Peoria chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union.

Tearing down and rebuilding the tower makes the most sense, Olson said. The price tag for tearing down and rebuilding the tower is around $20 million and could take up to five years to complete.

The cost of renovating the tower is around $13 million — most of which would go toward asbestos removal. “It needs $13 million worth of repairs, and then you’d still be left over with a 64-year-old building,” Olson said.

In 2005, the airport authority began looking at rehabbing the terminal, and a new airport terminal opened in 2011.

airport control tower.jpg
Hannah Alani
/
WCBU
The air traffic control tower at the Peoria International Airport was built in 1959.

A design was completed for a new control tower in 2016, but the FAA was not able to fund the construction.

“So then we kind of went into a holding pattern,” Olson said.

If the airport is able to receive $20 million through the federal infrastructure bill, Olson said the first step will be to perform a “design refresh” to assure the 2016 design meets code for 2022.

While it's technically possible for the airport to operate without a locally-based control tower, Olson said he worried about the future of the airport had the federal infrastructure bill not passed.

Allegiant,currently the airport's largest airline, pulled services from the Fort Collins, Colo. after the local airport there lost its tower, Olson said.

The air traffic control tower also is crucial in that it helps military, commercial and passenger aircraft take off and land in Peoria.

“You’re mixing … military airplanes with small two-seater, single-engine pilots who are out there training,” he said. “You need an air traffic control tower to make that safe.”

Olson said there are 68 airports in the U.S. that have airline service of some kind that do not have control towers.

Of those, only eight serve more than 100,000 passengers a year. And those communities’ average population is around 19,000.

“Peoria’s a way bigger city. We have three times that many passengers," he said. “There just aren’t airports that have well developed airline service like we do that don’t have air traffic control towers.”

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WCBU
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The Peoria International Airport is one of 26 in the country that still owns its own air traffic control tower.

“When the old terminal was built in the 1950s, it was very common for towers and terminals to be co-located,” Olson said. “Over time that’s evolved. Most of the towers that were that vintage were replaced by FAA-owned towers.”

Currently, the FAA pays the airport tens of thousands of dollars monthly in rent to use the tower.

If a replacement project is funded, the FAA benefits, too, Olson said; because the building will be federally funded, the FAA would finally be able to use the tower rent-free.

Olson said he will be able to apply for funding in January — 60 days from the date President Joe Biden signed the bill into law.

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