Federal money for Aspen airport upgrades called into question | AspenTimes.com

Federal money for Aspen airport upgrades called into question

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – The Aspen-Pitkin County Airport was among four entities singled out Monday by a government watchdog for mismanaging federal grant money, according to an Associated Press report. The accusation is “incredibly misleading,” according to the local airport director.

The Obama administration used economic stimulus money to pay for 50 airport projects that didn’t meet grant criteria and approved projects at four airports that have mismanaged grant funds, according to Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel. He said he plans to examine the Federal Aviation Administration’s process for selecting programs for the $1.1 billion in grant money.

The Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, according to Scovel, is among those with a history of mismanaging money, “raising doubts about their ability to ensure [stimulus] funds are effectively administered,” he said, according to the AP.

Local Airport Director Jim Elwood said Tuesday he believes Scovel was referring to “paperwork glitches” that have since been addressed, and called Scovel’s remarks “incredibly misleading.”

In one case, three years ago, the airport drew electronically from federal grant money for work done at the airport before all the paperwork was in place, Elwood said. The airport caught the procedural error, repaid the grant fund and got the paperwork in order before drawing on the funds. Though airport staffers caught the error, it was noted in the county’s annual audit, he said.

Last year, auditors noted wage data for an airport project involving contractors paid with federal dollars was incomplete, Elwood said.

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“In both these instances, we put things in place to make sure they did not occur again,” he said. “Our understanding is the FAA is pleased with our response.”

John Porcari, deputy secretary transportation, in a letter to Scovel, addressed a number of his complaints. None of the four grant recipients, of which Pitkin County was one, have audit recommendations pending against them, he noted.

Elwood forwarded a copy of the letter to The Aspen Times.

According to Associated Press writer Joan Lowy’s report, among the projects that Scovel said didn’t meet the FAA’s minimum score was $14 million that went to Akiachak, Alaska, a town of 659 residents, to replace its airfield. The town has a seaplane and is only 14 nautical miles from the state’s fourth busiest airport.

Nearly $15 million went to another Alaska town, Ouzinkie, that has 167 residents, to replace its gravel runway. The town has a float-plane landing area in its harbor. Barges also provide cargo delivery from Kodiak, 10 miles away.

Other projects Scovel said didn’t meet FAA’s threshold were $4.8 million for a new taxiway in Findlay, Ohio; $2.2 million for a runway extension at Wilbur Airport in Washington, $2 million for an apron at Warrensburg-Skyhaven Airport in Missouri, and $909,806 to design a new runway at a small airport near Dover, Del. He said those airports don’t provide commercial passenger service and have limited flight operations.

“According to FAA, the Dover project was chosen because it was the state’s only project that was ‘ready to go,'” Scovel said in a letter to the department.

The grantees Scovel cited for mismanaging grant money, along with Pitkin County, were the Guam International Airport Authority, Owensboro-Daviess County, Ky., and Puerto Rico Port Authority, according to the AP.

Owensboro-Daviess County, for example, received $658,730 despite reports citing its poor administration of federal airport funds for 10 of the past 11 years, Scovel said.

Porcari, according to the AP, said the grants criticized by Scovel were part of an effort to help small airports meet safety standards.

Porcari said Scovel’s description of the projects as imprudent was “an overstatement.” He said the projects would ensure that Alaskans had access to emergency medical service.

For selecting stimulus projects, the FAA scored projects on a 100-point scale. A score of 62 qualified for money. The projects cited by Scovel scored between 40 and 50 points. Porcari said the scoring system was just a way to help focus stimulus spending.

janet@aspentimes.com