Federal lawmakers advocate for $17 million Dubuque airport control tower project

Federal lawmakers are advocating for funding for a new air traffic control tower at Dubuque’s airport. Officials say it is a needed project with an estimated cost of $17 million.

Republican U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst and U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson sent a letter to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg this week encouraging the department to dedicate Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funds to construct a new tower at Dubuque Regional Airport.

The infrastructure act reserves at least $200 million for airports that participate in the Federal Aviation Administration Contract Program to upgrade FAA-owned air traffic control facilities. The Dubuque tower, the only FAA-contract tower in Iowa, qualifies.

“Dubuque is competing for funds with (about 250) other contract towers out there,” said Airport Director Todd Dalsing.

Estimates indicate a new tower would cost about $17 million.

“Due to the age of the tower, we’ve proposed new development on the west side of our airfield,” Dalsing said.

In a letter to Grassley sent in December, Dalsing wrote that the tower, built in 1973, has antiquated equipment and limited space and isn’t accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In an interview with the Telegraph Herald, Dalsing described “knob-and-tube-type controls.”

“It’s old, antiquated equipment that’s due or overdue for an upgrade,” he said.

Dalsing also indicated that the airport is expected to grow. One of the main selling points is that the Dubuque airport had the busiest FAA-air traffic tower in Iowa in 2020. The tower served 64,415 take-offs and landings in 2020 and 77,346 in 2021.

“A lot of times when you talk to someone and they think of the busiest, they think of commercial flights,” Dalsing said.

A total of 17,952 passengers were transported on commercial flights in 2021, according to airport officials. That represented a 62% increase from 2020’s total of 11,050, as both years were dramatically impacted by the pandemic and related reductions in flights. Yet, the 2021 total was only about half of 2019’s total of 36,592 passengers.

But the tower in Dubuque also serves a variety of other flights in addition to commercial flights and public charters, including small, single-engine aircraft, corporate jets, emergency helicopters and military aircraft. The airport has 50 local tenants.

The University of Dubuque aviation program flies in and out of a flight training facility at the airport. In the fall, UD had about 330 students affiliated with its three aviation majors.

The local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association and the Key City Flyers Club also fly out of the airport. The North American Trainers Association hosts a training event featuring vintage military aircraft each year, and planes also fly in and out during the annual July 3 airshow and fireworks event.

In 2021, the airport hosted more than 60 corporate jets during the Major League Baseball game at the Field of Dreams, Dalsing said.

“Quite honestly, we’re the busiest air traffic control tower in Iowa,” Dalsing said.

Ernst could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

“Iowa’s regional airports support all kinds of economic activity, from transporting goods to providing Iowans with connections to various destinations across the country,” Grassley said in a press release. “It’s critical that we keep our airport infrastructure up to date to maintain a resilient supply chain and a healthy economy.”

In a statement, Hinson expressed similar sentiments.

“The Dubuque Regional Airport is critically important to our local economy,” she said. “I’ll continue advocating for taxpayer dollars to be reinvested in Dubuque.”