Starting debt free: $8.7M grant secured by Tester buoys Missoula airport project

An artist’s rendering of the new passenger terminal planned at Missoula International Airport.

A round of discretionary funding secured by Sen. Jon Tester will enable Missoula International Airport to advance further into the first phase of building its new passenger terminal, and do so sooner than expected.

Airport director Cris Jensen said Wednesday the $8.7 million secured by Tester from the U.S. Department of Transportation will enable the project’s first phase to move forward without taking on debt.

“We’ve got our timeline fixed, but the funding was the one thing beyond our control,” Jensen said. “The debt fills the gap for when we don’t have grant funds in place. But since this (grant) is bigger than we expected, it allows us to go further in that construction without having to incur debt.”

The airport is now moving the TSA security checkpoint from its current location to the center of the airport lobby, where it will open on Dec. 10 and remain until work is complete on the first leg of the new terminal.

Demolision of the existing wing, followed by excavation and foundation work for a five-gate concourse, was already slated to move forward in early January, though the grant announced by Tester on Wednesday will allow it to begin debt free.

Jensen said the airport was looking to receive $11.6 million in discretionary transportation grants, and the funding secured by Tester will count toward that. However, Wednesday’s grant was larger than expected, leaving the airport optimistic that grant funds will exceed the original estimate.

“We’re hopeful, based on what we got, that we’ll actually exceed that $11.6 million,” Jensen said. “It looks to us, based on our conversations with FAA, that that will happen. That means ultimately in the end we’ll have less debt, and the fact we’re getting it sooner helps cash-flow the project.”

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.

The project, estimated at more than $67 million, will include eight passenger gates in two concourses with room for future expansion. The project isn’t paid by local bonds or taxes but rather, with revenues generated by the airport and federal grants, such as the one announced on Wednesday.

“Investments in air travel in and out of Missoula are critically important to western Montana,” Tester said. “This grant will expand tourism, provide a big boost to the economy, and make it easier for Montanans to stay connected with their friends and families.”

Funding for the airport project, along with upgrades to other state infrastructure, was included in the omnibus bill, which Tester supported. Sen. Steve Daines voted against the bill, though he lauded funding for the airport’s long-sought upgrade.

“The new terminal at Missoula International Airport will be a game changer for travel in Western Montana, creating more jobs and generating more tourist dollars.” Daines said. “I’m pleased to see Missoula, as well as Butte and Ennis, receive these much-needed funds. Montanans should be able to count on reliable access to airports and infrastructure.”