SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Standing on an empty parking space that will soon be torn up to make way for a four-level parking ramp, Dan Letellier was already envisioning the final product.
“It’ll be a relief when it’s finished,” Letellier, the director of the Sioux Falls Regional Airport, told KELOLAND News at the official groundbreaking ceremony for the new airport parking ramp.
“It’s gonna be quite a challenge from here to there in the next 18 months,” Letellier said. “Parking is already at capacity. Taking out spaces to construct the parking garage is going to create some challenges for everyone.”
That’s why airport officials are constantly reminding local travelers to try and get a ride to the airport which Letellier said will lead to more congestion in front of the airport. Extra parking spaces are also being added to the economy parking lot to help ease the loss of spaces from construction of a $63 million, four-level parking ramp with 975 parking spaces and a skywalk connection to the airport terminal.
The entire project is being funded by the airport itself, which Letellier said is because it “saved and saved” over the last few years.
“The thing you probably don’t know is that a substantial percentage of any airport’s budget is parking revenue,” Lon Stroschein, chairman of the airport’s authority board, said. “The terminal, the gates, all the things you see inside of the terminal, that’s really funded by parking.”
Parking rates at the airport are $11 per day for the main long term lot, $18 a day for the short term lot, and $9 a day for the economy lot. There’s an hourly rate of $2 per hour for all three parking lots.
Stroschein said he’s been talking about a parking expansion his entire time serving on the airport authority board. He said parking is always a challenge for airports because they rely on the income and don’t want a third-party offering shuttling from a parking lot a few miles away.
“We have to provide good, affordable nearby parking for travelers,” Stroschein said. “But it also helps us to fund what we have to do next, which is to put more gates in our terminal.”
Construction is underway and the planned completion date is expected for October 2024.
Keeping up with growth, funding avenues for the airport
In 2022, more than 1.2 million passengers used the Sioux Falls airport and Letellier told state lawmakers this legislative session the airport has more than a $400 million annual impact on the South Dakota economy.
“A vibrant airport is necessary for the community as we have people that are moving here for jobs or for businesses that they’re starting up,” Letellier said. “We want to make sure that we have the facilities available to accommodate that growth.”
Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken praised the airport board for its governing over the airport. He noted many people think the city or a different government runs the airport, which receives federal funding for the runways and the air traffic control tower.
TenHaken said “creative funding” will be needed for future projects in the airport’s master plan.
Stroschein said officials know bigger expansion is needed at the Sioux Falls airport and the cost will be “another big number.”
“What we need at this airport is probably a little bit more than what parking revenue is going to afford,” Stroschein said.
‘Behind the growth curve’
Future planning at the airport was discussed briefly by Sioux Falls city council members during a March city council information meeting. Council member Greg Neitzert said the airport master plan has goals of multiple new gates and two new runways that would require new approach zones.
“They’re looking at building multiple new gates,” Neitzert said. “They’re out of capacity and there’s airlines that would like to come to town and so they’re looking at five or six new gates, but that’s going to be incredibly expensive.”
City council member Pat Starr said he’d like to hear more regular updates on the airport at city informational meetings.
“It was shocking and concerning the report that we received,” Starr said on March 14. “They are severely behind the growth curve of our community.”
Starr said he believed airports have quietly been asking for funding assistance from the state legislature and the legislature hasn’t let them move forward.
“They’re short tens of millions of dollars to keep up with the growth,” Starr said. “If the airport doesn’t keep up with the growth of the community, it’s going to hamper leisure travel, but more importantly, it’s going to hamper business travel.”
Starr said the airport has big plans, but the funding mechanisms are limited and it’ll need partnerships between the local, state and federal governments to fund future expansions.
One bill dealing with airport funding during this past legislative session was Senate Bill 158, which failed in the House of Representatives 50-18.
Letellier and Patrick Dame, director of the Rapid City Regional Airport, each testified in favor of SB-158 in front of the Joint Committee on Appropriations. Both spoke about escalating costs. Dame said a runaway approved by Federal Aviation Administration standards cost about $20 million in 2003 but has increased to $60 million.
“We really need a partnership with every governmental entity that benefits from having the airport in Sioux Falls,” Letellier told lawmakers.
Stroschein noted the Sioux Falls airport benefits many surrounding communities like Brookings, Mitchell, Yankton and areas in southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa.
“Never have we had conversations within those communities about what can we do better for you? But then, are you willing to participate in that financially?” Stroschein said. “We bring customers into town.”
Stroschein highlighted how the airport serves as a first and last impression for many new travelers to the area.
“The last thing they take with them is how the airport treated them on the way out,” Stroschein said. “We take that very seriously. That’s more than just a Sioux Falls thing. It’s really a regional thing.”