Bolton: Airline passengers funding wasteful airports

Associate EditorOctober 15, 2009 

MIDLANDS residents who fly commercial probably don't know much - if anything - about Lexington County's tiny airport.

But they and other airline passengers help pay for improvements at the facility and hundreds like it each time they travel.

That's because the federal government taxes airline passengers and then funnels billions to general aviation airports that cater mostly to recreational pilots and some corporate interests. The decades-old practice has led to a network of tiny airports, many of which are a waste of tax dollars.

Lexington County's airstrip in Pelion - once a drag strip - falls in the wasteful column.

When county officials purchased the strip from the town of Pelion in 2004, pledging to turn it into an operating airport, they didn't worry much about the potential cost. They knew the biggest expense - the cost of upgrading and expanding the airport - would be shouldered by the federal government. Federal Aviation Administration grants would pay 95 percent of the cost of the more than $2 million in proposed improvements.

Council members were convinced they could create a viable facility that would be an economic driver to lure industrial and business investment to the southern end of Lexington County. If the airport took off, they reasoned, whatever small amount Lexington taxpayers would be called on to provide for operations and match money to secure the federal grant would be well worth it.

It makes sense to seek to boost development in that area, but pouring money into this strip is a distraction that takes time away from looking for meaningful ways to help southern Lexington County.

It's hard to believe the county ever would have undertaken this project had it not been for the little-known federal program that heaps billions of dollars on small airports across the country.

A recent USA Today story chronicled how general aviation airports soak up billions in public dollars and raised legitimate questions about whether some of these facilities should even exist.

With federal money being so freely given, local communities can't help but grab it. That's doubly so when you consider that in South Carolina, the state also kicks in 2.5 percent of the project cost, leaving the local government having to come up with only 2.5 percent itself.

Lexington County Councilman John Carrigg, chair of the council's airport committee, calls it an unbeatable deal. "The grant money really is astonishing on airports.... You put up two and a half cents, and you get a dollar."

Mr. Carrigg said the county has little option other than to cling to its goal for the airport to spur development. "Unless we can just sell it to somebody who can operate it as an airport, there's really nothing else you can do with it," he said. He said the federal government would want grant money returned if the airport is dissolved.

While the FAA continues to dole out the cash, some critics question the wisdom of subsidizing airports that don't offer commercial flights, when larger airports are struggling to address delays in air traffic. Critics also note that money spent on general aviation airports benefits only a few private pilots.

We've seen that played out in Richland County. Jim Hamilton-L.B. Owens Airport is a closed shop that caters to private pilots. Supporters like to tout the airport's economic impact, but the public gets no direct use of the county-owned facility. While many facility upgrades have come from FAA grants, Richland taxpayers also have been subsidizing the airport. That's true for many general aviation airports.

General aviation airports that are underused and largely lose money have sprouted up across the nation in some obscure places thanks to the little-known Airport Improvement Program, which for nearly three decades has raised billions annually by taxing every airplane ticket sold in the United States. Taxes on a flight can be 15 percent. Passengers pay a 7.5 percent sales tax on each ticket and a $3.60 fee for each flight.

"Federal lawmakers have used some of the money to build and maintain the world's most expansive and expensive network of airports - 2,834 of them nationwide - with no scheduled passenger flights," according to USA Today. "Known as general-aviation airports, they operate separately from the 139 well-known commercial airports that handle almost all passenger flights.

In what it called "the first full accounting" of the 28-year-old program, the paper found that Congress has directed $15 billion to general-aviation airports, "which typically are tucked on country roads and industrial byways."

There are nearly three dozen general aviation airports in South Carolina alone. The USA Today analysis found that Lexington County has received 13 grants totaling $2.5 million. Richland's Hamilton-Owens Airport, a reliever airport, has received 15 grants totaling $8.1 million.

Lexington County Councilman Johnny Jeffcoat has supported the airport development, but recently he's had questions about the direction it's headed. He said he hopes to get some justification for going forward at an upcoming retreat.

Councilman Smokey Davis, an airport committee member, said he too is beginning to wonder. "Maybe it was our hope or dream or fantasy that some company with the need for aviation activity would build a home there."

"So far, it just hasn't panned out," Mr. Davis said. "Right now, I think it's under review; I think that's the best way to put it."

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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