PIA receives $15M federal grant for a new air traffic control tower
Gene Olsen believes the Peoria International Airport resolved “an existential issue” on Thursday with the announcement of a $15 million federal grant to build a new, and much needed, air traffic control tower.
“The airport exists to serve the traveler, and so the traveler — as long as the tower is working, they don't really notice it. But if the building were to close and the tower were to go away, then the airline service would also go away,” said Olson, director of airports for the Metropolitan Airport Authority of Peoria.
The $15 million, distributed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), comes out of the first $1 billion allocated from the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) passed by Congress last year.
Owned by the Airport Authority, the existing tower opened in 1959 and is the second-oldest tower still operating in the U.S. Airport officials said the National Air Traffic Controllers Association ranked its condition as the worst of any FAA-staffed tower in the country.
“The building is basically worn out,” said Olson. “It's just become untenable to maintain the structure, and we don't have the resources to maintain it on our own. So by getting this grant, it starts the process of replacing the whole building and constructing a brand new standalone tower that meets all the federal standards and is environmentally safe, and is a safe place to work.”
He said the current tower is approaching a point where it would have to be shut down. It doesn’t have the necessary space to mount certain instruments, and it isn’t tall enough. The new tower will reach 130 feet, about 40 feet higher than the existing tower.
“There's a whole litany of problems with the existing building, and so this $15 million gets us started on the path of constructing a replacement building that ensures that we'll have air traffic control services going on into the future,” said Olson.
He credited U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth and U.S. Reps. Darin LaHood and Cheri Bustos with helping to secure the funding. A provision included in the IIJA allows FAA grants to be used to upgrade air traffic control towers owned by airports, which have traditionally been left out of consideration for FAA funding.
“The community is overdue for an upgrade and thanks to President Joe Biden's bipartisan infrastructure law, they'll finally receive one,” Bustos said in a statement. “I look forward to the General Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport continuing to grow and thrive for generations to come.”
With the total cost of the project estimated at about $27 million, Olson said he’s hoping for additional federal funding in the future.
“In an ideal world, what would happen is we would get a second phase of funding under the same program,” he said. “We have not talked to the FAA about how this is going to work. We just got the announcement today, so I don't know if this is going to be considered phase one by them, or if this is it. If it is phase one, then we'll apply for the second phase and try to get that.
“This is a multi-year construction project and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is a multi-year program that goes for five years. So that's ... my hope is that we'll be able to get a second round of funding. If that doesn't materialize, then we're going to have to get creative with all of our funding sources and see what else we can come up with. But we're hoping not to have to do that.”
Olson said the new tower will be built just east of the existing tower; the Airport Authority and FAA previously conducted a site study and environmental assessment of the area. Design work, originally completed in 2016, will be reviewed to make sure it meets the requirements. Olson said officials also need to verify that the existing tower is not eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
“There's some paperwork and some administrative things that we have to do, and those will start right away,” he said. “There's a bidding phase, and there's a whole lot of things that have to happen. So, I'm thinking that probably springtime or sometime next summer is when we would actually start construction.”
It will likely be at least five years before the new tower is fully operational on its own, said Olson, following an FAA commissioning process when both towers will operate at the same time.