The airport to nowhere

First there was the “Bridge to Nowhere”, the proposed pork project from disgraced (and now deceased) former senator Ted Stevens (R-AK). Now there’s the “Airport to Nowhere” – a $5M terminal for St. Cloud, MN regional airport that serves exactly zero commercial flights. (story here) Your taxpayer dollars at work.

St. Cloud Regional Airport (STC) touts lots of amenities on its website—a café, ATM, free wi-fi, free parking and a $5 million completely renovated terminal whose capacity went up dramatically from 30 to 200 travelers. There’s also a new $750,000 passenger boarding bridge secured with federal stimulus funds to keep travelers out of the elements while catching a flight.  One asset, however, the newly renovated airport notably lacks—commercial flights and passengers.

“We’re here to serve the public and serve them well and have adequate facilities,” Bill Towle, airport director, told the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota. “I would say the airport is a utility and we need adequate facilities to serve the public.”

Currently, an average of about one charter flight a month with 130 or so passengers uses the eerily empty 9,000 square foot glass-fronted facility.  Potential passengers checking the airport’s website are notified there’s “no commercial air service” available. Delta Connection flights between St. Cloud and Minneapolis were grounded at the end of 2009 due to weak customer demand. Both national rental car agencies pulled out of their airport offices months ago.

By then, it was too late. $3.125 million in federal aviation grants from user fees on fuel and tickets, $1.131 million in state airport funds, and $767,000 in local sales taxes were already spent on what’s in danger of becoming a terminal project in more ways than one.

“One thing we did not see is that Delta was going to pull out of here.  That was an absolute shock,” Towle said. ”We might not have done this improvement if we knew they were going to be gone.”

Hey genius – did you ever think of asking Delta about this before securing the funding? You know, like a phone call might have done it, don’t you think?

With no commercial flights the TSA is pulling their drones and equipment from the facility as well. They can stand around at some other airport where there are at least some passengers to harass.

The controversy refocuses attention on the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program, which some critics say too often results in misplaced priorities and aviation funding. In the last decade, St. Cloud Regional Airport has received more than $24 million in FAA airport improvement grants, including funding for the terminal project, according to OMB Watch, an online database that tracks government spending.  Another national watchdog group indicates the St. Cloud airport received clearance for the terminal expansion despite the project’s low ranking of 35 out of 100 on the FAA’s own priority ratings scale.  The FAA states the rating “is the first evaluation factor and serves to categorize airport development in accordance with agency goals and objectives.”

Apparently this is not enough of an embarrassment and waste of taxpayer money. They want more and they’ll probably get it.

Despite a shortage of commercial flights out of STC, there’s no shortage in requests for federal dollars.  Senator Al Franken’s website lists a $500,000 earmark request for improved runway lighting for the St. Cloud Regional Airport, while Senator Amy Klobuchar’s website lists a $1,000,000 earmark request for the same project.

Typical government – if something fails, throw even more money at it.


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