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Airport projects vital for valley’s future

The Medford airport has the opportunity to get a jump on expansion plans thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed by Congress last year. That’s good news for the area, which is poised to continue growing and needs better air service to help make that happen.

Airports — especially regional ones like Medford — have always had the problem of lagging behind the curve when passenger boardings increase; but they must compete for scarce federal funding to pay for expensive upgrades.

The existing Medford terminal was completed in 2009, at the time the biggest construction project in the airport’s history. It already needs expansion to accommodate more flights and passengers.

Airport officials hadn’t planned on more terminal work until 2028, but $5 billion in new infrastructure funding for airport terminals was too enticing to pass up. The airport will put in a bid for a share of that money.

The Medford airport already is receiving $3.5 million a year for five years from the infrastructure bill — twice what the airport usually receives in federal money. And it has applied for state funding as well.

Projects already in the works include expanding the east apron, used by the Forest Service, the military and cargo flights. The extra room will accommodate more very large air tankers during fire season, a boost to firefighting operations throughout the region. The apron now has room for just one of the tankers; the expansion will make space for four.

Other projects include new LED runway lighting and a seal coat for the runway this year.

The Medford airport had been recording steady grown in passenger boardings until the pandemic hit, setting a monthly record in February 2020 with 69,000 passengers. This February didn’t reach that level, but still hit 61,000 — a sign that travel is on the rebound. Medford is the third busiest airport in the state after Portland and Eugene with nearly half a million passenger boardings annually.

Several factors have combined to hamper the airport’s recovery, including the omicron variant of the coronavirus, pilot shortages and, now, soaring fuel costs as war rages in Ukraine. Those are temporary setbacks. Air travel will bounce back, and airport improvements will help.

If the Rogue Valley expects to grow and attract new investment, reliable, convenient air service is essential. Airport officials are wisely taking advantage of newly available funding to make that a reality.