Buttigieg: Rural needs, accessibility put Chamberlain airport at the top of federal funding list

Sep. 11—CHAMBERLAIN, S.D. — U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg toured the Chamberlain Municipal Airport, one of the two South Dakota airports out of nearly a hundred across the country to be chosen to receive a facelift with those funds.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed by President Joe Biden in 2021 is funneling $108 billion into infrastructure projects throughout the country, with $5 billion of that going specifically toward projects to renovate airport terminals.

Buttigieg said Chamberlain Municipal Airport's key use of being a launching point for medical services, and its need for Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, put its application near the top.

"From the medevac mission to just something as basic as ADA compliance can make a lot of difference for people who really count on it, helps a project score highly and compete well for those funds," Buttigieg said. "What can really help an application stand out is if there's a demonstrated need, a readiness to put the dollars to good work, and another thing that scores a lot of points with us is a safety benefit."

The visit from the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana and past Democratic Party candidate for president was the start of a two-day stint in South Dakota. After the airport appearance, Buttigieg planned to hold closed-door roundtable events with tribal leaders in Chamberlain and first responders in Sioux Falls to discuss transportation needs with each group.

On Tuesday, he will speak with truck drivers and industry leaders at the I-90 rest stop near Salem to discuss trucker safety and supply chain topics.

Last year, the Federal Aviation Administration named the 85 airports that would receive a total $969 million in grants apportioned from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law throughout the rest of that year.

The grants allocated are allowed to fund projects that improve airfield safety, replace aging facilities, increase capacity, encourage competition, improve energy efficiency and increase or improve access to passengers with disabilities and historically disadvantaged populations.

The airport is routinely used as a medevac, for flying medical professionals from centers in Sioux Falls and Rapid City into the city to meet patients, Chamberlain City Administrator Clint Soulek said. It is not uncommon for the airport to be used by patients flying into those cities for medical treatment.

The airport is also used as a frequent stopping spot for tourists to access prime pheasant hunting grounds.

The new terminal is named after Greg Powell, Chamberlain city engineer who retired before the project could see approval, who said that the project took about 20 years to get approved, due to nearby subdivision developments and the weight-classes of the planes. An existing grant the airport had received from the FAA also interfered with development.

"The rule has always been you can't do hangars," Powell said, "If you do a hangar, you lose that $9 million project that's supposed to happen."

Since the FAA changed their rules to allow grant recipients to use the funds to update arrival/departure terminals, which Powell said opened the window for the Chamberlain Municipal Airport to jump on the opportunity to apply.

This is one of two airport terminal development projects in South Dakota that received competitive grants from the $5 billion apportioned from Biden's infrastructure bill. The grant footed 90% of the project's $950,000 price tag.

Short Elliot Hendricks (SEH) Inc. was the construction engineering company responsible for designing the new terminal according to the city of Chamberlain's capital investment plan.

"Without the infrastructure bill this project would not have happened for five to ten years," Shawn McMahon, principal engineer at SEH said.

McMahon said the existing FAA grant for $700,000 mainly focused on sealing cracks in the airport pavement, and getting the pavement prepared in time before applying for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law grant application was crucial for securing this most recent grant.

The other South Dakota airport that received funding from this grant program, the Rapid City Regional Airport, won $10,900,000 to rehabilitate its terminal and expand and remodel its ticketing area.

Buttigieg is the second transportation secretary to visit the Chamberlain-Oacoma area in the last 10 years. Obama administration Secretary Anthony Foxx spoke in Oacoma in 2014 regarding rural rail improvements.