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As Georgia’s Airports Age, State Funding For Repairs Lags Behind Neighbors

State funding for airport maintenance in Georgia is only a fraction of what some neighboring states are spending.
State funding for airport maintenance in Georgia is only a fraction of what some neighboring states are spending.
Credit Emil Moffatt / WABE

With its status as one of the world’s busiest airports, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport gets a lot of attention.

But there are more than 100 public-use airports in the state – and many of them are in need of an upgrade. The majority of Georgia airports are at least 60 years old. Many of them were built in the 1940s during World War II; dozens more were built in the 1960s under Gov. Carl Sanders.

The state’s investment in airport upkeep has risen dramatically in the past decade from $1.7 million in 2011 to $17 million this year, but that figure is just a fraction of what neighboring Florida and North Carolina spend.

According to numbers presented to state lawmakers last week by the Georgia Department of Transportation, Florida allocated $329 million dollars to maintain its 103 airports. North Carolina, meanwhile, ponied up $125 million dollars, despite having only 74 public-use airports.

To maintain its airports, Georgia relies heavily on federal funds – more than $60 million this year.

Carol Comer with GDOT says if state funding levels remain the same in FY22, the state would again fall well short of meeting the needs of the state’s airport operators.

“That will fund about 124 projects of the nearly 300 that were applied for. So again, you still see about a $130 million dollar deficit based on applications,” said Comer.

Comer said fewer than half of the state’s airports have a pavement rating above 80, the FAA standard. And with a focus on safety, expansion plans often get put on the backburner.

“The number one priority for funding projects are safety-related projects. After those, FAA is focused on capacity projects, those that are expanding the system,” she said.

GDOT says aviation supports 13% of the state’s workforce and has a nearly $7 billion economic impact.

Georgia could benefit from more federal dollars soon, however. The $1.9 trillion dollar infrastructure bill being considered by the U.S. House includes more than $600 million to upgrade Georgia airports.

Economic Development

When it comes to attracting companies to the state, airports can make a big difference. That’s according to Chris Clark with the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

He recalls two examples – one in which the poor condition of an airport cost the state a deal.

“The airport was in such a poor condition, we actually rented a helicopter to fly them in and landed in a vacant field, because we didn’t want them to see the airport,” said Clark. Georgia lost out to Arkansas on that deal, Clark said.

But he also recounted another time, when the state was bidding for the KIA factory in West Point. In that case, a much nicer airport helped matters.

“We took them to that LaGrange Calloway Airport, it made all the difference,” said Clark. “I’m not saying that’s why we got KIA, but it played a role that day in sending that image and that message.”