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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane airport a big winner in infrastructure deal, Buttigieg says

Planes await passengers on the tarmac on Nov 18, 2021, at Spokane International Airport.   (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Expansion at Spokane International Airport paid partially by federal dollars will be part of the industry’s strong rebound after pandemic-related restrictions, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said Thursday.

“We know that making that investment is really an investment in the economy of a region, and even the efficiency of our air transportation system overall,” Buttigieg said in an interview, hours after arriving at the airport for an appearance at the Western Governors Association annual meeting in Coeur d’Alene.

The $11 million in federal money will go toward an expansion of the airport’s terminal, the first major work performed on the West Plains transportation hub in 23 years, airport officials said earlier this month. The first phase of the project will add three gates, expand the ticketing area and improve the baggage handling sections of the terminal. Work is expected to begin next month.

The money is part of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill President Joe Biden signed into law last year. The deal also includes money for improvements at the Pullman-Moscow airport and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Buttigieg said he’d been encouraged by the rebound of the air travel industry following restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, including use that exceeded even optimistic forecasts. Spokane officials say traffic is nearing pre-pandemic levels.

“But it comes with a real challenge, which is that airlines haven’t always been able to keep up,” Buttigieg said. “I think in hindsight, they let too many people retire early, and they’ve now had trouble staffing up to support the routes they run.”

The Transportation Department will aid those airlines in hiring and recruiting, Buttigieg said, while also holding them accountable for timeliness and service.

Buttigieg, a former Democratic presidential candidate and the first openly gay person to be confirmed to a U.S. Cabinet post, also said he felt welcomed in the area following the arrest last month of 31 men with ties to a far-right group on charges of inciting a riot to interrupt a Pride celebration in downtown Coeur d’Alene.

“It was certainly a very disturbing event, and one that was noticed around the country,” Buttigieg said. “It’s a credit to the concerned citizen who called in to law enforcement, who acted very quickly, that whatever they were planning to do got disrupted.”

Buttigieg said the event demonstrated that “as a country, we still have a long way to go toward acceptance and safety for all.”

“I’ve only ever been made to feel very welcome here,” Buttigieg said. “It’s a beautiful place that reminds me of the best things about where I live, Traverse City (Michigan), but with mountains.”

Buttigieg’s move to Michigan from South Bend, Indiana, where he served as mayor from 2012 to 2020, has prompted speculation about his political future. It’s also the hometown of his husband, Chasten.

Buttigieg also encouraged Spokane residents hopeful for additional rail service in the region to push for new routes and service as a result of the Biden administration’s investment in rail. The infrastructure deal set aside $66 billion in rail funding for Amtrak. While much of it is designated for the Northeast and its busy commuter lines, Buttigieg said there are opportunities to push for funding in the West.

“First, we have to deal with the maintenance backlog that’s built up over time,” Buttigieg said. “But we also have a chance to expand routes.”

The infrastructure package included $1.8 billion for a program called Corridor ID, in which local governments and others can submit to the Federal Railroad Administration requests for funding for intercity travel.

“Now’s a great time for communities that are interested in more rail access to be part of the corridor identification, which is underway right now through the program that funds this kind of passenger rail,” Buttigieg said.