Colorado Public Works Journal, Winter 2024

WINTER 2024┃43 INDUSTRY INSIGHTS feature by Sean O’Keefe A lifelong love of aviation set the stage for a rewarding career for the Colorado Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) Director of the Aeronautics Division, Dave Ulane, A.A.E, FRAeS. Ulane grew up in Littleton and matriculated to Metro State University of Denver, where he earned a B.S. in Aviation Management while learning the ropes of airport operations at Centennial Airport. After more than 20 years on the airport management side at scenic beauties like Yellowstone Regional Airport in Cody, WY, St. George Municipal Airport in St. George, UT, and Aspen/Pitkin County Airport in Aspen, CO, in 2015, Ulane took Colorado’s top role in flight as the Director of CDOT’s Aeronautics Division. “The Aeronautics Division is the aviation branch of the state’s multimodal transportation system,” begins Ulane in explaining how his team fits within the broader scope of infrastructure in Colorado. “Our Division is composed of the only nine people out of 3,200 CDOT employees that don’t do surface transportation. They all love aviation as much as I do.” Asked to explain how it all works, as Ulane puts it, at least where aviation is concerned, in Colorado things are straightforward. “We engage with 66 public use airports in Colorado. We collect a fuel tax from all aviation fuel sold and disburse two-thirds of that revenue directly back to the airport where the fuel was sold. We use the other third to fund our grant program and various statewide initiatives, which is our discretionary allocation.” says Ulane of the Division’s economic role. “Fundamentally, what differentiates the Division of Aeronautics from the rest of CDOT is that our reporting structure is not through CDOT. We are governed by the Colorado Aeronautical Board, a seven-member board appointed by the Governor. These two elements, independent funding, and oversight, combine to allow us to do some very innovative things.” From years of personal experience, Ulane points out that the airport directors managing the publicly owned and operated airports in Colorado are all dedicated professionals, often facing considerable fiscal constraint. The Division’s vision is to be a leading state aviation organization by enhancing the efficiency, economic benefit, and sustainability of Colorado’s aviation system through funding, innovation, education, and support of current and emerging technologies. “The individual airport’s capital improvement needs are largely funded through FAA grants. We work hand in glove to layer our money with the FAA money in a completely transparent, three-way partnership,” shares Ulane. “FAA grants typically require a 10 percent local match, so we fund half of the local 10 percent match, up to $250,000 a year.” Through funding necessary improvements and runway rehabilitations statewide is the vital function, Ulane sees relationship building as the essential work of the Division. “We have three aviation planners and a program manager on our team. Each of them works with about 25 airports in their respective regions,” he continues. “The regional planners get to know each airport and its specific challenges. When airports request funding, we’re judicious. There is no formal presentation process or contending for resources among airports- funds are typically focused ‘runway in’ on the highest priority pavement maintenance projects. The Board’s funding focus is typically on smaller airports. In Creede, for instance, the runway rehabilitation effort in 2022 wasn’t eligible for federal funding. The Board recognized the importance of being able to get firefighting aircraft and emergency services to Mineral County in rural southwest Colorado, so that was prioritized.” Though the airports are the Division of Aeronautics’ primary points of contact in the state transportation system, Ulane takes special pride in serving aviation’s most affected users – the pilots. Leveraging Colorado’s unique reporting structure and the Division’s funding independence, Ulane and his team have embarked on a pivotal approach to flight safety across Colorado the public should know more about. “One cool success the Division can share is the recent implementation of aviation weather cameras across the state,” says Ulane of a flight-focused approach to aviation safety. “Today, CDOT owns and operates 43 aviation weather cameras statewide that give pilots and flight planners a real-time view of weather conditions. We put 13 of the 43 cameras at the top of key mountain peaks like Berthoud Pass and Wolf Creek Pass. The other 30 are at airports.” Ulane shares that the aviation weather camera program is a safety measure that has been in use in Alaska for some time due to that state’s volume of small aircraft traffic, erratic weather, and remote mountainous terrain. “Colorado became the first state other than Alaska to implement such a system. Since the Division has the Board’s confidence, in 2020, when the FAA agreed to support the weather camera program, we put $773,000 of state money toward making the idea a reality in just 14 months. The FAA hosts all the cameras. Anyone can easily log on to see the weather in real-time and see what it looks like on a clear day for comparison. In terms of flight safety, this is a game changer for pilots flying over the Rocky Mountains.” Link: FAA WeatherCams Asked about what maybe next, Ulane believes that aviation, and all forms of infrastructure, should keep looking toward the horizon. “The Division just kicked off the first-ever state partnership with the National Renewable Energy Lab to conduct a study looking at airport energy strategies from a statewide perspective,” says Ulane. He recognizes that things are changing. “There are now companies producing electric airplanes that seat only nine; therefore, passengers don’t have to go through TSA security. That means a flight with one pilot, no fuel, and little required of passengers ahead of time. This will open possibilities for public air travel that don’t exist today. Imagine a 20-minute flight from the eastern plains to Centennial airport without waiting on either end.” While micronizing air travel to uber-sized units sounds advantageous to passengers, Ulane reminds us that change must be anticipated and managed effectively. “We are funded by fuel taxes, so how will we be funded in the future when airplanes are electric,” asks Ulane. “The Division of Aeronautics leans into challenges. It’s in our nature.” David Ulane, A.A.E., FRAeS Director, Aeronautics Division at Colorado Department of Transportation