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Bill urges creation of airport authority

Hawaii’s airports could have their own governing body in the coming years thanks to a Senate bill seeking to expedite modernization of the state’s key transit system.

Senate Bill 3072, introduced by the late Gil Kahele, creates an airport authority that would handle management and planning for Hawaii’s 15 airports. All are currently managed by the state Department of Transportation.

“What an authority does is it gives the airport system the ability to move things along at a much quicker pace,” DOT director Ford Fuchigami told the Tribune-Herald on Thursday, noting Hawaii’s system is one of two in the country still under state jurisdiction. The other is in Alaska.

“Our airports are much busier now, and we need to catch up with lots of modernizations,” said state Sen. Lorraine Inouye, who chairs the Senate Committee on Transportation and Energy. That’s especially true of the Hilo airport, she said.

The airport authority, which would consist of an eight-member governing board, would aid the catch-up process by allowing the board easier access to public-private partnerships, particularly for capital improvement projects.

The current state procurement system for such partnerships was not designed with the airport business model in mind.

“The airport is actually an enterprise — we don’t take general fund money or taxpayer dollars,” Fuchigami said. “We run based on revenues generated by airlines and concessionaires.”

“We’re a business, and making decisions and getting things done in a timely manner is very crucial to us, like any other private sector business,” he added.

“It’s extra layers of internal governance,” said Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, D-Oahu, a co-signer of the bill. “Because (the airports) create their own revenue, that’s different from other departments having to go through (the process) to get their budgets released.”

Testimony presented during SB 3072’s recent hearing before the Transportation and Energy Committee indicated strong support from those whose user fees make up airport revenue.

“The (Airlines Committee of Hawaii) … is grateful the Legislature recognizes the need for a single entity with overall consolidated jurisdiction,” ACH co-chairs Blaine Miyasato and Matthew Shelby wrote. The ACH comprises 20 air carriers that use Hawaii’s airports.

Creating a separate body was on the DOT’s radar before the bill was introduced: The department already initiated a feasibility study for an airport authority. That study is expected to be complete in about eight months.

“If the bill passes, we can take a lot of things we learned from the study and apply them to the bill,” Fuchigami said.

The DOT would retain administrative oversight of the new authority in part so that current employees in the airports division would not lose their benefits. According to the current version of the bill, transfer of management powers would take place in June 2018.

Bills in previous legislative sessions cited the need for a port authority to manage state harbors — one is currently in the House — but this is the first time a measure focuses exclusively on airports.

“It’s the first time, and it also is moving at a faster pace,” Inouye said.

The bill cleared two hearings this week and was referred to the Ways and Means Committee.

Part of the reason for the faster pace is Kahele’s previous involvement.

“This is one of his legacy bills,” Inouye said. “It would have (eventually) come up regardless, but we’re happy to move this along.”

Kahele chaired the Tourism and International Affairs Committee, and was well aware of the challenges airports face with regard to capital improvement funding.

“That’s the reason he introduced this. He wanted to help the tourism industry,” Fuchigami said. “We strongly supported the measure, and we thank him for (introducing) it.”

Inouye said SB 3072 was one of the “very, very few” bills to receive a signature from all 25 senators since she has been in the Legislature.

Email Ivy Ashe at iashe@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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