The Three Forks Airport is set to get upgrades to its runway and taxiway in the coming years after receiving a grant for more than a half-million dollars.

The Gallatin County Commission accepted the over $518,000 award from the Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday, with the money coming from the department’s Airport Improvement Program. The grant is planned to be used for resurfacing the county-owned airport’s runway, extending the taxiway and adding lights along the taxiway.

The grant allows for a four-year window for the money to be spent. Plans for the project are split into two parts, with the first being the resurfacing of most of the pavement area at the airport. Three Forks Airport Board Chair John Edwards said work could begin as soon as fall 2022.

But the main focus of the project is the expansion of the taxiway — where planes prepare to take off or drive to after landing — to run the full length of the lone runway at the airport.

“The expansion of this taxiway is going to make it better, because if you have a taxiway that’s only half the length of your runway, that means you have to go on the active runway and take up that space to go ahead and taxi down to the end so you can go ahead and take off,” Edwards said.

And planes backing up onto an active runway could cause dangerous situations.

“You get pretty involved when you’re landing an airplane or you’re taking off, but it’s a safety deal,” Edwards said. “It’s going to save somebody’s life eventually.”

An increase in activity at the airport is what’s causing the taxiway extension to be a priority, Airport Manager Nick Bilton said. With more flights coming in and out of Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, flight schools and other pilots flying smaller aircraft are using the Three Forks airport, Bilton said.

Ridgeline Aviation, a private charter and flight school company, has used the Three Forks Airport for as long as the company has been around, said Chief Flight Instructor Mitch Edwards. He said having to back up planes on the taxiway at the airport hampers overall efficiency and forces landing planes to wait until the runway is clear.

But the level of traffic at Three Forks Airport pales in comparison to that of Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport.

“It gets so congested in the Bozeman airspace that the tower struggles to keep up with us,” he said.

Last year, despite a litany of travel restrictions and reduced air travel due to the pandemic, the Bozeman airport had roughly 105,000 flights throughout the year, spanning from general aviation and commercial flights. Three Forks Airport, which has no commercial airline services, had roughly 10,000 a year.

Additionally, the Yellowstone Airport in West Yellowstone added its first new connecting flight in 40 years in June, adding three daily flights a week to and from the Denver International Airport.

A U.S. Department of Transportation report indicated that nationally, flights are returning to pre-pandemic numbers, with June having roughly 564,000, or just over 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels recorded in June 2019. This year, with many restrictions having been lifted, the Bozeman airport is likely to return to its pre-pandemic flight numbers.

“We’re seeing that ripple effect from Bozeman, and the growth of general aviation here,” Bilton said. “It’s going to make a huge improvement to what we have to offer for local pilots and visiting pilots.”

Travis Eickman, an engineer on the project, said that the work will help to make the airport more efficient and safer. The asphalt overlay will help to extend the life of the paved areas in the airport for another 20 years, Eickman said.

The growth of both Bozeman and Gallatin County have been felt in a not so obvious way at Three Forks Airport. A good gauge is the demand for hangars, Eickman said. Three Forks Airport had its last available spot for a hangar snatched up two weeks ago. Eleven new hangars are in the works for the small airport.

“As we’ve had the influx of folks moving in and eating up the real estate market, with some of those folks also comes aircraft,” Eickman said.