airport

Passengers at the Quad-Cities International Airport await flights Tuesday. A consultant for the airport says traffic is expected to continue to decline year-over-year.

Ed Tibbets, Quad-City Times

As Quad-City leaders seek to improve air service, one of the possibilities raised at a meeting Wednesday is improving revenues for the Metropolitan Airport Authority of Rock Island County.

That includes this notion: Asking people in Scott County to contribute.

The idea of seeking revenue from Scott County residents, if possible at all, appears to be a long-term proposition. However, at a wide-ranging discussion about the airport's future Wednesday, area leaders batted around the possibility of expanding the tax base for the authority, which currently levies property taxes on just seven of Rock Island County's 18 townships.

"If people want a growing, thriving airport, then the question becomes how do we pay for it?" asked Dave Heller, chairman of the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce's air service committee. Heller is co-owner of the Quad-Cities River Bandits.

Heller, who recently became chair of the committee that advises the airport authority, said he is trying to generate discussion about what kind of airport the Quad-Cities wants.

Raising revenue could make it easier to gain more air service. Airport costs are important to low-cost carriers. In addition, some airports offer perks to try to lure people to their doors, which could increase passenger counts.

Peoria's airport, for example, offers free parking.

The Quad-City International Airport has seen a decline in passenger traffic over the past several years. Often, area residents complain that fares here are too high. And while the airport's consultant, Mike Bown, of Trillion Aviation, said during a presentation Wednesday that passenger trends going back to 1990 are more positive, the short-term is of concern to some officials.

Rock Island Mayor Mike Thoms said he believes the airport authority is "on top" of the latest changes. But he added, "Anytime you have down numbers, it's disappointing."

During the discussion, which occurred at a meeting at the airport of area elected officials and members of the air services committee Wednesday morning, the possibility of broadening the tax to apply to more people within Rock Island County, as well as other Illinois counties, was brought up as a possibility.

Iowa was mentioned, too.

Thoms told the group that he thinks a broader tax base is needed to support the airport. "Jumping to the Iowa side and spreading that base, I think, makes some sense too," he said.

A random survey of cars in the airport's parking lot over the past 17 years showed 69 percent of vehicles had Iowa's license plates, according to a presentation given by Aviation Director Bruce Carter.

Molly Foley, an airport commissioner, said the discussion of broadening taxing authority is in its "early infancy" stage. But it is something the group has discussed in the past.

"We are a regional airport," she said.

The authority didn't raise additional property taxes for 2018 in its annual meeting Tuesday. It approved levying about $1.4 million, the same as last year. But it did take steps to enable commissioners to raise more additional property taxes in the future if they choose to do so.

Unless the base is broadened, though, raising property taxes would require going back to the seven townships that are currently taxed.

Expanding in Illinois would likely mean going to the legislature or seeking voter approval.

Expanding to the Iowa side of the river could also be difficult. Scott County Board of Supervisors Chair Carol Earnhardt was cool to the idea after Wednesday's meeting. "I think they need to take care of their side of the river before they look to us," she said.

Earnhardt did say, though, the discussion was worth having.

In his presentation, Bown said additional revenues could help to draw air service in certain instances. But, he added, it's not "the magic bullet."

The Quad-City airport continues to see  leakage to other markets, especially Chicago, and some participants in the meeting said they still would like to see more area residents, including business travelers, use the airport. But one of the things Bown also emphasized was that airport use is generally driven by economic conditions.

Passenger use of Des Moines' airport has expanded dramatically as the area's economy has grown, he noted. The Des Moines area has been successful at luring technology firms, like Facebook and Microsoft.

In 2016, there were about 1.2 million passengers leaving the Des Moines airport, according to FAA data. That's up from about 900,000 in 2010.

"Things change and it's driven by the economy," Bown said.

Non-farm employment in the Des Moines area has grown about 15 percent between 2010 and 2016. In the Quad-Cities, non-farm payrolls grew by about 4 percent during the same period.

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