- Associated Press - Monday, April 21, 2014

WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota state and local officials hosted the head of the Federal Aviation Administration in Williston on Monday to push their case for federal assistance and funding for infrastructure development at several airports strained by the state’s oil boom.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta toured Williston’s Sloulin Field International Airport, where officials say population growth brought on by the expansion of the oil industry has pushed the facilities to the limit.

The airport, located in the fastest-growing micropolitan area in the nation and the nexus of the state’s oil patch, has seen its number of departing passengers grow from just 8,500 in 2007 to 186,000 in 2013. More passengers now arrive in a month than would arrive in a year before the oil boom.

“Clearly, the need in Williston is dramatic,” said U.S. Sen. John Hoeven. “And we need to get something going now.”

The airport handles only eight departures a day - four to Minneapolis on Delta and four to Denver on United - but it was designed for a smaller loads and smaller planes.

Sloulin Field’s published weight limit for planes is 25,000 pounds, but it has signed agreements with United and Delta allowing planes of up to 53,000 pounds to land, with the airport assuming any liability for damage to the runway, said Anthony Dudas, the airport’s assistant manager.

He said that Williston and Dickinson in the south of the state’s oil patch are the only two airports in the nation to have established such provisions with airlines.

The tiny terminal building is easily overwhelmed by passengers.

Baggage claim, noted by paper signs on a wall, consists only of a shutter that opens, allowing bags to spill onto a metal tray about 10 feet in length.

The departure hall is a small room that gets backed up when flights are canceled or delayed, said Steven Kjergaard, the airport’s manager. There are currently only four bathroom stalls for passengers in the building, he added.

Airport officials hope to replace the airport with a new facility in one of two potential sites northwest of town by 2016 or 2017. Plans call for a terminal of 71,300 square feet, around seven times larger than the crowded terminal in the current facility.

But it is not just Williston’s airport that is struggling to keep up with the growth caused by the oil boom: Airports across the western part of the state are looking to expand as well.

North Dakota Aeronautics Commission Director Kyle Wanner said that in 2008 it was forecast that the state would see 1 million enplanements, or commercial passenger departures, by 2030. That number was reached in 2012.

“While we’re seeing unprecedented growth - leading the nation in growth - to some degree, we won’t even realize the potential of that growth until our transportation network is up to speed,” said Rep. Kevin Cramer.

Airports in Minot, Dickinson and Bismarck are all planning either expansions or new facilities due to the increase in demand.

Huerta, the FAA head, noted that federal funding can be difficult to secure and is highly competitive.

“I didn’t bring my checkbook with me,” he chuckled when the issue of funding was brought up.

He added that the ability of state and local sources to provide funding increased the chances of receiving federal money for airport projects and encouraged North Dakota to come up with clear plans and priorities for the development of its airports.

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said she believes North Dakota’s airports should be a priority for federal funding.

“I know you do meetings like this all over the country where people present a whole series of needs,” she said to Huerta. But “I would be shocked if there is any other state in the union that has the same challenges that the state of North Dakota has,” she added.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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