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Airport grants from FAA under fire: What does that mean for little-used MidAmerica?
March 22, 2011
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  • By Mike Fitzgerald
    March 20, 2011

    MASCOUTAH — MidAmerica St. Louis Airport lost its regular passenger airline service more than two years ago. Air cargo flights remain sporadic, while the airport itself continues to lose millions of dollars each year.

    Nonetheless, MidAmerica has accrued more than $3 million in federal taxpayer dollars for airport repairs, upgrades and expansion through the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Improvement Program.

    Last week, the St. Clair County Public Building Commission approved a plan to spend $2.24 million to double the size of MidAmerica’s runway apron, with 95 percent of the cost — more than $2.1 million — being paid for through the FAA improvement program.

    That program, which doles out $4 billion annually to airports nationwide, has come under fire for lax oversight and for disproportionately giving money to smaller, under-performing airports.

    MidAmerica received $898,350 from the program in 2008, $1 million each in 2009 and 2010, and is slated to receive $150,000 in 2011. The amount dropped because the airport did not have enough flights to qualify for the higher amounts.

    One recent study of the FAA program found that 11 airports nationwide received improvement grants of more than $100,000 per paying passenger from 2005 to 2008.

    The Fall River Mills Airport, in California, received about $272,000 during that four-year period for each paying passenger, according to the nonprofit group Subsidyscope, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

    County Board member Craig Hubbard, R-O’Fallon, said he is of two minds regarding FAA improvement dollars coming to MidAmerica.

    “As a taxpayer, I’m concerned about it because that’s my federal money being spent on things that don’t have much of a future life,” said Hubbard, a frequent critic of the county’s management of the airport.

    “But as a politician in St. Clair County, I got to be for it because any time we can get anything from the feds for 95 percent, you got to take advantage of it,” he said. “It’s like anything else, it’s great for me, but I don’t want the other guys to have it.”

    A major catalyst for the FAA grant to MidAmerica was St. Clair County’s signing of a lease last year with a developer aiming to build a second warehouse at the airport, according to Elizabeth Isham Cory, an FAA spokeswoman.

    “The money’s being released because the airport has a signed lease showing that there is going to be a business coming in and that business will bring jobs,” Cory said. “The lease is the trigger, yes.”

    Four passenger airlines have started and ended service at the $313 million airport since it opened more than 13 years ago. Several development deals, including one involving the airport’s existing warehouse, have also come and gone.

    But in the case of developer John Hewitt, who plans to build and open the privately paid for warehouse later this year, an elaborate vetting process took place to ensure the viability of his project, airport director Tim Cantwell said.

    “On this regard, we have researched this as much as we could,” Cantwell said. “And we had him in front of the airport committee of the building commission on a number of personal reviews.”

    Another important factor in the county’s decision to obtain the FAA grant was the fact that “if the entitlement money is not used in the next 18 months, it would go away, or it goes to somebody else,” Cantwell said. “Which is OK if we didn’t have a use for it. But we do have a use for it.”

    Discussions with Hewitt about locating at MidAmerica had been going on for more than a year before he stated he planned to build a warehouse there, Cantwell said.

    Even then, Hewitt had to be vetted through the Illinois Department of Transportaton and the FAA’s airports division.

    “We’ve had to do engineering studies, we’ve had to do best-case analysis, all of that stuff,” Cantwell said. “So it’s just not a matter of, ‘Here’s the money, here’s the plan.’ That’s just one piece of it.”

    Hewitt runs H-Trading, a New York City firm, that in December agreed to build a 62,500-square-foot cargo warehouse worth up to $6 million at the airport.

    In addition, the commission has agreed to lease 26.4 acres to H-Trading, which aims to export perishable goods from the Midwest, such as fish and grain, to buyers in China.

    Hewitt could not be reached for comment.

    The airport’s first warehouse, which was built with an $8 million federal grant, is being remodeled into a Boeing Co. subassembly plant that will employ 75 workers.

    The FAA Airport Improvement Program has been slammed by critics over the years for poor oversight and for a funding formula that seems to reward underperforming airports, resulting in projects with little effect on commercial aviation.

    A federal audit of the program in 2008 showed that an estimated 4 percent of the $4 billion in annual grants — $320 million — were made improperly.

    The Air Transport Association, a trade group representing the nation’s top passenger airlines, has repeatedly called for reforms in the program.

    “It is a biased program that’s in favor of funding airport projects with little or no value to our commercial aviation system,” said Victoria Day, a group spokeswoman. “It does need to be corrected so that the nation’s most critical airport infrastructure needs are met with (program) dollars.”

    Date: 2011-03-20