The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold has identified another budget zombie. This time it’s an obscure grant program administered by the Federal Aviation Administration that dumps money on tiny airports with scant activity.
From the article:
Along a country road in southern Oklahoma, there is a place that doesn’t make sense. It is an airport without passengers.
Or, for that matter, planes.
This is Lake Murray State Park Airport, one of the least busy of the nation’s 3,300-plus public airfields. In an entire week here, there might be one landing and one takeoff — often so pilots can use the bathroom. Or none at all. Visiting pilots are warned to watch out for deer on the runway.
So why is it still open? Mostly, because the U.S. government insists on sending it money.
Every year, Oklahoma is allotted $150,000 in federal funding because of this place, the result of a grant program established 13 years ago, in Congress’s golden age of pork. The same amount goes to hundreds of other tiny airfields across the country — including more than 80 like this one, with no paying customers and no planes based at the field.
And why does the federal government insist on sending Lake Murray—and other seldom used airports—money?
In the years since 2000, pork has gone far out of fashion in American politics. But this program has remained strikingly difficult for anyone — from Washington to Oklahoma City — to kill.
President George W. Bush, more than once, proposed budget cuts that would have ended the program. In 2011, Coburn suggested making states share more of the costs. Instead, last February, Congress kept the program in place when it reauthorized the FAA.
Budget watchdog groups say these airport entitlements are in a league with the Essential Air Service program — which subsidizes commercial flights to small places — and Amtrak. Their services are spread wide enough to give them a strong base in Congress.
One constantly hears the cries that the federal government (i.e., taxpayers) isn’t “investing” enough money on “our crumbling infrastructure.” Yet this is precisely what happens when you put politicians in charge of allocating resources: decisions are largely made on the basis of political and parochial concerns rather than sound economic and financial considerations.
(See this Cato essay for more on federal involvement in airports and air traffic control.)
Addendum: Fahrenthold notes that former House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Bud Shuster (R-PA) engineered the “carpet‐bombing” of money from this program to congressional districts far and wide. His son, Bill Shuster, now heads the same committee and the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. So don’t expect this zombie to finally be put down anytime soon.