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Save RDU Forest issue: RDU gets $49.5 million in coronavirus relief funding. Public hearing on quarry set for June 23

Raleigh-Durham International Airport has received $49.5 million in federal funding for the coronavirus crisis.

Airport CEO Michael Landguth said in a news release that the money will help the airport stay afloat. “The CARES Act provides relief to airports at a time when revenue has dropped to unsustainable levels,” Landguth said. “The federal funding combined with our ‘survival budget’ will help RDU keep the lights on and financially stable during this unprecedented time in our industry.”

RDU’s board approved the funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) on May 1.

The boost comes to RDU as the proposed quarry on the 105-acre Odd Fellows tract by William B. Umstead Park goes to public comment.

In March 2019, over the protests of local residents and the Umstead Coalition, the nonprofit that preserves the park, RDU leased the property to Morrisville-based Wake Stone Corp. to mine for $24 million in royalties over 35 years.

On April 8, Wake Stone applied for a mining permit on the tract. Park supporters have said doing so during the coronavirus crisis would minimize public input on the issue.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality will hold a virtual public hearing on June 23.

RDU has posted jumps to its finances in recent years. For fiscal year 2018-2019, ending in March 2019, the airport’s net position increased by $128.2 million. In 2018, it increased by $56.3 million. In 2017, it was $26.4 million.

In 2019, much of that was because of an increase in federal and state funding because of its “Vision 2040” master plan. In fact, RDU has received a total of about $61.5 million in capital contributions in the last three years.

Capital contributions were $53.8 million for 2019. The year before that, in 2018, capital contributions were $4.9 million. In 2017, it was $2.8 million.

But in a letter to the N.C. General Assembly in April, Landguth wrote: “The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on passenger traffic has reduced revenue for airports across North Carolina to levels that are unprecedented and unsustainable. As the legislature evaluates options to provide financial relief and support for economic recovery, we ask that you consider the financial hardships commercial service airports are experiencing due to the prolonged effects of the global pandemic and its impact on air travel.”

RDU’s growth in recent years is in contrast to its finances and passenger levels up to 2015. For that fiscal year, the increase to the net position was just $1.5 million.

RDU’s passenger levels in 2015 were 9.9 million, which was about the same as in 1992. In 2019, passenger traffic was 14.2 million. When asked on Friday if what was actually “unsustainable” was RDU’s growth in recent years, spokeswoman Stephanie Hawco did not comment.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the CARES Act provides $10 billion to airports nationwide. The legislation increases the federal share to 100 percent for airport improvement programs, as well as grants already planned for 2020. This way, projects planned by airports can continue regardless of whether they have other funding. Usually, airports would have to contribute a matching amount.

In order to receive the CARES Act funding, airport must maintain 90 percent of their workforce through the end of 2020.

RDU has said it will use the $49.5 million to help pay for debt service, salaries and benefits.

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