Getting Off the
CARES Act, AIP funding multiple airport
construction projects
By Julie Stricker

ir travel is a lifeline for Alaska, connecting major urban hubs to remote gravel landing strips and back.

The Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT&PF) oversees maintenance on more than 300 aviation facilities, including 237 airports. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit much of the state’s aviation industry hard, with a major rural carrier declaring bankruptcy and a drastic reduction in passenger travel curtailing flights and cancelling seasonal air schedules. But all of the disruption came with a silver lining: increased federal funding and a reminder of Alaska’s importance to global cargo routes.

In March 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced a $124.17 million grant for Alaska to offset some of the impacts from the pandemic for 257 airports across the state, including 20 not under DOT jurisdiction. The funding came from the Airport Grant program, part of the CARES Act, a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill passed by Congress as the country shut down.

John MacKinnon, commissioner of Alaska DOT&PF, expressed the state’s appreciation of Congress’ and the FAA’s support in a news release last year.

“This funding is critical to support airport maintenance and operations and replace lost revenue resulting from the decline in aviation traffic due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” MacKinnon said in March 2020. “Funds can be used for any aviation expense, including airport operating expenses, airport debt service payments, capital projects, and more.”

That “and more” so far has meant funding for projects as varied as a new terminal in Juneau, firefighting trucks, pavement resurfacing, snowblowers, and brooms. This is in addition to projects DOT&PF already has on its books, some of which have been scheduled over multiple fiscal years. Another source of funding is the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP), which awarded Alaska more than $75 million in September 2020. That funding is for airports to make capital improvements, improve public safety, and improve infrastructure.

Alaska Representative Don Young, former chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, notes that Alaska has one of the largest and most active aviation communities in the United States.

“For many of our state’s communities, air travel is one of the only ways to remain connected to one another,” Young says. “As a pilot myself, I know just how important it is that Alaska has reliable and safe airport infrastructure. The FAA’s AIP program is one of the nation’s most important funding sources for airport infrastructure, and I am a proud advocate for this program. Whether it is the ability to access goods and services, medical care, or to simply earn a living, air travel will continue to be crucially important to our state.”

The initial CARES Act grant was divided three ways: approximately $33 million for Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC) and Fairbanks International Airport; $49 million for state-owned rural airports; and $41.7 million for non-state-owned airports. The latter includes Juneau International Airport, Merrill Field in Anchorage, and Kenai Municipal Airport, as well as those in Ketchikan, Soldotna, and Wasilla.

Roger Maggard, statewide airport development manager at DOT&PF, says much of the CARES Act funding went to maintain operations at airports.

Aerial view of construction at Crooked Creek
A new and expanded runway is under construction at Crooked Creek. The work was well under way in this Sept. 23, 2020 photo.


In addition, the act also provided money to increase the federal share to 100 percent for grants awarded under the Fiscal Year 2020 appropriations for the AIP and supplemental grants. That grant program included $14.9 million for sixty-four airport maintenance-related projects around the state:

  • $1.1 million each for aircraft rescue and firefighting trucks for airports in Cold Bay and Deadhorse. These trucks are an essential part of the FAA’s certification process for airports that serve scheduled and charter aircraft with more the thirty seats, as well as scheduled service for aircraft with between nine and thirty-one seats.
  • $176,580 for aqueous film forming foam test equipment for airports in Bethel, Dillingham, and Homer.
  • $817,725 for five projects to replace visual aid markers such as segmented circles, towers and poles, beacons, and wind cones.
  • $1.4 million for a combination of grants for ten different projects for such things as brush cutting, pavement repairs, and threshold markers.
  • $5.2 million for snow removal equipment such as motor graders, eight-cubic yard trucks with a slide-in sander, snow blowers, and brooms.
  • $4.3 million for twenty-nine projects to preserve airport surfaces such as sealing cracks, dust palliative erosion control, and rehabbing threshold markers and pavement markings.
  • $725,641 for three projects to remove obstructions such as brush and trees.

In Fairbanks, CARES Act funding is being used to revamp or “right-size” one of the runways at the East Ramp side of the airport, which is used by small planes, according to airport engineer R.J. Stumpf. Currently runway 2R/20L has a 6,500-foot runway, which is too big, Stumpf says.

“The pandemic has caused a significant shift in the air traffic mix. Nominal amounts of passenger aircraft are flying, displacing the cargo they once carried in their bellies. It has created considerable demand for freighter space to carry that cargo.”
Jim Szczesniak, Airport Director
Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport
“We are right-sizing the runway, so we’re going to shrink that down to 4,500, resurface the runway itself and the taxiways, and replace all the lighting,” he says. HC Contractors is performing work for the nearly $7 million project. It is expected to begin this summer and will not impact flights.

Juneau is also benefiting from CARES Act funding. The airport is owned by the City and Borough of Juneau and is in the midst of a multi-year $16.2 million project, led by Dawson Construction, to replace its passenger terminal, parts of which date back to the ‘40s. In September, the airport was awarded a lump sum of $15 million by the FAA, which will pay for the bulk of the project. The city originally had planned to pay for it over several years with airport passenger facility charges and sales and property taxes. It is expected to be completed later this year.

Rural Alaska Projects
Most of the projects slated for 2021 in rural Alaska are state funded, although federal funding plays a role there, too. While most consist of seasonal maintenance, several big projects in McGrath, Mertarvik, Aniak, Crooked Creek, and Nome are also on the drawing board. The state is also looking at options for the airport in Seward, which is subject to flooding by the adjacent Resurrection River, but Maggard says that isn’t on the list for 2021 and he’s not sure when such a project could begin.
Aerial view of Mertarvik
The village of Mertarvik, to which residents from the eroded village of Newtok have been moving.


Erosion and melting permafrost are taking a toll on the infrastructure in rural Alaska. In the past decade, DOT&PF has seen a greater need to resurface runways and do other seasonal maintenance, “particularly for Arctic airports and other airports located on permafrost,” he says.

In McGrath, the airport is located within a bend along the Kuskokwim River, and the water has moved just a few feet from the runway and access roads at times. McGrath has received close to $34 million from the FAA to help with erosion control. The runway, taxiway, and apron pavements also have extensive cracks and the lighting system is outdated. The purpose of the proposed project is to reconstruct the those pavements. The contractor, Knik Construction, is expected to complete this work in 2021.

Erosion is also the reason for a new airstrip in Mertarvik, the new community housing previous residents of Newtok, just 9.5 miles away. The Ningliq River has been encroaching on the village of Newtok for years, and the airport is expected to be compromised within a couple more years. About half of the residents have already moved to the new site at Mertarvik, which is on higher ground. The new airport will have a 3,300-foot runway, with construction expected to begin this year and be completed in 2022. Total cost is expected to be between $20 million and $30 million.

Aerial view of early construction on new airport a mile from Mertarvik
Construction of a new airport about a mile from Mertarvik is expected to begin soon.


In Aniak, a major airport project that moved the runway 260 feet south of its original location is nearly complete. Knik Construction has been working on the $58 million project, which was mostly funded by the FAA. The previous airport did not meet federal standards, Maggard says.

The airport in Crooked Creek was also substandard, with a runway that was too short for many planes and subject to dips and cracks. A $16 million grant in 2019 allowed the project to move forward, and construction is expected to be complete in 2022. The project includes a new 3,300-foot runway, as well as lights and buildings to house snow removal equipment. Brice Inc. is the contractor.

The runway at the Nome Airport is due for a major upgrade after receiving $21.6 million via CARES and AIP grants in 2020. Knik Construction is the contractor for the project, which is expected to total nearly $28 million. The current runway surface is degraded and prone to buckling due to permafrost. The project is expected to be complete in 2022

Aerial view of Resurrection River as it spills onto the runway of the Seward Airport in 2013
The Resurrection River is spilling onto the runway of the Seward Airport in this 2013 photo. Flooding and erosion have become a major problem and the state is looking at its options to relocate or rehabilitate the airport.

Paul Janke

Other Major Projects
In the second quarter of 2020, ANC was the third busiest airport in the United States because of an increase in cargo flights for shipments that normally would have been carried in the belly of passenger flights. The airport remained in the top ten in the third quarter, which saw a 25 percent increase in cargo tonnage over the same quarter in 2019. It’s also the sixth busiest cargo destination in the world and second in the United States.

“The pandemic has caused a significant shift in the air traffic mix. Nominal amounts of passenger aircraft are flying, displacing the cargo they once carried in their bellies. It has created considerable demand for freighter space to carry that cargo,” says Anchorage Airport Director Jim Szczesniak.

“This demand for moving cargo displaced by the decrease in passenger aircraft availability is further bolstered by a substantial increase in e-commerce as people across the globe have embraced online shopping throughout the pandemic. The shift in the movement of air cargo has highlighted ANC’s efficiencies and significance as the Center of the Air Cargo World.”

Several new projects and expansions totaling more than $500 million are on tap for 2021 for the Anchorage and Fairbanks airports. In Anchorage, Alaska Cargo & Cold Storage is a 700,000-square-foot, climate-controlled facility that will be constructed in phases, beginning later this year.

In September 2020, the US Department of Transportation awarded the Alaska Energy Authority a $21 million BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) grant for the project, which is a joint venture of McKinley Capital Management and entrepreneur Chad Brownstein. When it’s fully complete, the facility will offer cold storage, which would benefit the seafood and peony industries, as well as warm storage and warehouse options, logistics, and office space.

FedEx and UPS are also planning major facilities expansions at ANC. FedEx has announced a $57 million project that would include a 98,000-square-foot operations center, with additional offices and parking for vehicles and aircraft. UPS plans a $110 million expansion, including a flight operations building and warehouse. Both projects are privately funded.

In Fairbanks, Omni Logistics is building a $6 million hangar designed to handle 737-900s and narrow-body aircraft, which is expected to be complete this summer. Omni provides ground handling services for several carriers as well as handling charters and diversions from Anchorage.

LifeMed Alaska is building a $6.9 million fully equipped air medical transport facility in Fairbanks, which is expected to be wrapped up this summer. It will double the current hangar space, which opened in 2019, and add 6,600 square feet of office space.

In addition, both escalators in the main Fairbanks terminal are being replaced this spring, according to Stumpf. The $1 million state-funded project, which got underway in January, will be conducted in two phases, with Phase 1 replacing the up escalator to the TSA security checkpoint. That is expected to be finished in the first quarter. Phase 2 will replace the down escalator to the baggage carousel. Bliss Construction is the contractor.