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Aviation grants keep airport up to speed

Aviation grants have been the key to continual improvement to the county-owned Jake Arner Memorial Airport in Mahoning Township.

Paul Smith, manager of the airport and chairman of the Carbon County Airport Authority, said the airport authority received more than $6 million in grant money over the years, most of it with just a 5% match from the authority. The grants covered 90% of the cost, and the state contributed 5% for the projects.

The grants come through money from the Federal Aviation Administration to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Aviation. The bureau licenses airports in Pennsylvania, Smith said. Some grants don’t cover 90% of the project, but instead cover 50% or 75%, it just depends on the project.

“We’ve been very lucky,” Smith said.

The 58-year-old airport has two projects in engineering and design. One is for a snow removal equipment storage facility and the other is for a new hangar for the Geisinger/St. Luke’s medical helicopter.

Both projects involve two phases: design and engineering, and then construction. Just the design and engineering for the snow removal equipment storage facility costs $156,000, Smith said. The authority has a grant to technically cover 90% of the cost of the project. When they got the grant, the project was going to cost $120,000. Still it’s $108,000 in grant money, Smith said.

Most of the money that the FAA uses for grants comes from the taxes on airline ticket and aviation fuel.

“It’s aviation users that pay for improvements to aviation facilities,” Smith said.

The authority plans to apply for a grant to help cover the cost of construction of the storage facility, but it can’t apply for a grant until it puts the project out for bid and knows how much money it will cost to build.

The preliminary plans for both projects have been submitted to the Carbon County Planning Commission and the Mahoning Township Planning Commission.

Smith said the storage facility is needed because the snow removal equipment sits outside.

The new hangar for the medical helicopter was requested by Geisinger and St. Luke’s, who rent hanger space that is shared with someone else.

“They are tenants, so they are not required to help pay for the hangar,” Smith said.

A medical helicopter has been at the airport since 2006, and Smith wants them to stay.

“Lehighton to Lehigh Valley takes six minutes. You can’t do that with an ambulance on the highway. It saves lives, and you can’t put a price on that.”

Building a hangar is no small feat though.

Smith said that when the authority built two additional T-hangars, the project required multiple studies to be done to check the soil and underground utilities, and plan for wetland delineation. The engineering, design and site preparation cost $370,000.

“You still have to build the hangar after that,” Smith said.

From start to finish, it took about five years.

The downside of the new hangar for the medical helicopter is that the grant for phase one will cover 75% instead of 90%, so the airport authority has to fund 25% of it. The grant for phase two, which is the construction, covers 50% of the cost.

“That is going to be a big expense to us to do,” Smith said. “I’m a big proponent of keeping them here and giving them the facility that they need to operate safely. They’ve been a good tenant.”

Smith said he wants to have a long-term agreement with Geisinger and St. Luke’s to rent the hangar, before they go ahead and build it. He has talked to them about it.

“I think they are fine with it,” Smith said.

The LifeFlight medical helicopter owned by Geisinger and St. Luke's health networks is housed in a hangar at the Jake Arner Memorial Airport in Lehighton. KRISTINE PORTER/TIMES NEWS
An airplane comes in for a practice touchdown and takeoff at the Jake Arner Memorial Airport. KRISTINE PORTER/TIMES NEWS
The LifeFlight medical helicopter owned by Geisinger and St. Luke's health networks is full of life saving medical equipment. It is housed in a hangar at the Jake Arner Memorial Airport in Lehighton. KRISTINE PORTER/TIMES NEWS