Missoula airport officials brief Tester on long-awaited terminal project

Construction crews prepared the lobby at Missoula International Airport on Wednesday for the first phase of work, which will include relocating TSA to the center of airport. Demolition will begin in January. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Sen. Jon Tester sat down with Missoula International Airport officials on Wednesday to review their plans for a $111 million construction project that will result in a new eight-gate facility with room for expansion roughly seven years from now.

The project, which indicates Missoula’s wider economic growth, was already under way when Tester arrived on a connecting flight from Minneapolis, with crews preparing the lobby for TSA’s relocation and a ground-floor gate to help ease crowding once demolition begins in January.

“This is a project that’s the result of lots of years of growth in our community, not just at the airport, but all through our community,” said airport director Cris Jensen. “As a result of that growth, we’re seeing bigger airplanes, more airplanes and more destinations, and this facility was never built to accommodate that type of operation.”

The project will unfold in phases starting this month, as TSA relocates to the main lobby and construction begins on a new road accessing the terminal’s reconfiguration. Demolition work will begin in January, followed by vertical construction in late 2019.

That will result in five jet gates and a new south concourse, at an estimated cost of $67 million. Once occupied in 2021, demolition will begin on the existing terminal, followed by the construction of the east concourse with three or four additional gates.

The entire project is estimated at $111 million and is expected to take five to seven years to finish.

“The end of the project will accommodate additional airlines and service,” said Tim Damrow, the airport’s projects manager. “If a new airline wants to come into the community, we’ll have space and give them space in the terminal, whereas right now, it’s definitely an issue.”

Sen. Jon Tester, right, and Missoula International Airport Director Cris Jensen, review plans to construct a new $111 million airport terminal during a meeting in Missoula on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The project received a welcome boost earlier this month when Tester helped secure $8.7 million in discretionary funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation. That exceeded what airport officials had expected, and it will enable the project’s initial phases to more forward faster and without taking on debt.

Still, Jensen told Tester, the larger project remains contingent on funding, and when that funding arrives.

“The building is the easy part, paying for it is the hard part,” Jensen said. “It’ll depend on the bid process, funding availability and our ability to service debt, because there will be some debt related to this project.”

Jensen said the airport budgeted roughly $11.6 million in discretionary funds and around $15 million in entitlements, which are based on enplanements and other growth factors. If that funding is realized, the airport will likely incur around $30 million in debt when building the south concourse.

The debt will be repaid through airport revenues, reserves and passenger facility charges.

“Transportation funding is always hard to come by,” Tester told the Missoula Current after the meeting. “You have to fight for every penny of it. But projects like this are very important and very needed. This is the kind of infrastructure we need in the state.”

With larger aircraft and more destinations, Missoula International has set new passenger records in each of the past few years, including last year’s record of 772,000.

It’s on pace to exceed that figure once again, and while the terminal project will take years to complete, getting it started can’t happen fast enough, airport officials have said.

Growth in the state’s air service is good for the economy, Tester added.

“Making sure you have good air service that’s affordable is important for our economy and our economic growth,” Tester said. “What this infrastructure project is going to do is allow these folks to be able to get more flights, better flights and more diverse flights, and hopefully get the competition to knock the prices down, too. That will help Montana’s economy, not only in western Montana, but the whole state.”

Tester said the project is badly needed in Missoula. Sen. Steve Daines also has helped secure money for the project.

“People want to live here, and we’re seeing our airports busting at the seams,” Tester said. “This airport is no exception. Their ridership has gone way up over the last 10 to 15 years, and it will continue to go up over the next 10 to 15 years, there’s no doubt about that. They’ve got to plan for today and plan for the future while they’re doing projects like this.”