Federal money for airports without planes

As the federal government howls over the impending spending cuts that go into effect tomorrow, we learn about some of the appropriations that the sequester will not touch.  That right-wing rag The Washington Post tells about an airport in my native Oklahoma that gets $150,000 of federal money a year even though it has no planes.  There are actually 88 airports like that throughout the country.  (This one is over by where my brother lives.  I wonder if he has been there to see his federal tax dollars at work.)

From the Washington Post article by David A. Fahrenthold:

ARDMORE, Okla. — 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.

Oklahoma state officials receive hundreds of thousands of federal dollars just for maintaining this rarely used air strip. The Post’s David Fahrenthold went to stand on the runway and talk with the locals about one of the ways congress is giving away tax dollars.

Oklahoma state officials receive hundreds of thousands of federal dollars just for maintaining this rarely used air strip. The Post’s David Fahrenthold went to stand on the runway and talk with the locals about one of the ways congress is giving away tax dollars.

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.

Lake Murray, as it turns out, is an ATM shaped like an airport.

It’s also an example of the kind of spending — wide-ranging, constituent-pleasing giveaways — that Washington has struggled to swear off in this time of austerity. Once again, for example, Congress voted to continue giving money to local airports last year. And in Oklahoma, state officials voted to keep the airport open and, therefore, be able to take it.

“This is a direct gift from your congressman and senators,” said Victor Bird, director of the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission, which handles the money the government allots for Lake Murray. “Everybody’s going to get something here, and we’re going to take some.”

For advocates of leaner government, the story of Lake Murray’s airport is particularly galling now, as an $85 billion budget cut nears on Friday. The “sequester,” as the cut is known, is what lawmakers call a “dumb cut,” because it doesn’t try to distinguish muscle from fat.

Within the Federal Aviation Administration, for instance, officials say the sequester could result in the closure of air-traffic control towers and long flight delays. But it would not touch the airport program, which has allotted Lake Murray about $1,500 for each of its takeoffs and landings.

“Why have we not gotten rid of the stupid stuff in the federal government?” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who highlighted Lake Murray in his annual “Wastebook” last year. “Because every one of these . . . stupid or irresponsible projects has a constituency.”

via In Oklahoma, tiny airport attracts federal money, but few planes – The Washington Post.

Read on for details of how this program works.  Because the Lake Murray airport can spend all of that money, it is spent elsewhere.  And despite efforts to kill it, this is another program that can’t die.

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  • Kurt Cockran

    While I agree the allocation of the funding should be evaluated for funding for the airport, in Lake Murray’s defense, a lake I grew up on, it is among the last remaining recreational lakes that have no private properties built around it, which makes it a huge asset for tourism for southern Oklahoma. Despite its smaller size, people all across Oklahoma and Texas come far to drop their boat off and enjoy its beauty and calmer waters, a rarity in the windy Oklahoma on bigger lakes with large obnoxious lake front properties.

  • Kempin04

    Hmmm. The principal certainly applies, but I don’t think this is a very good example of wasteful spending–or at least there must be a thousand better examples from which to choose. Safe air travel requires serviceable landing strips for emergencies, whether or not the airport is active. Even I know that. Besides, this is “small change” in terms of what we are spending. I grant the point of the article, which is the flat dishonesty of saying that air traffic control needs to be cut when there are plenty of less urgent spending decisions, but still, I’m not sure this partucilar example really makes the case persuasively.

    Then again, maybe that is why it appeared in the WaPo.

  • Kempin04

    Oops. The “principle” applies. The principal might also apply, but that is beside the point.

  • Jon

    A lot of those airports serve as alternate landing sites for emergencies and also for routine training missions for the Air Force, especially in Oklahoma conducted at Vance AFB in Enid, Tinker AFB in OKC and the Altus AFB, and also in North Texas at Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls. The skies in that region are abuzz with activity, it is a good place to practice flying.
    Also, many of the airports have radio beacons which are still highly useful for civil aviators in navigation, even in the GPS age.
    So the airports do serve a useful purpose.

    So they do indeed have a purpose.

  • Jon

    And occasionally, the military planes do break down and land at those sites, and the base has to send out the maintainers to go fix it, and sometimes even a security detail to guard the plane if it’s really hard broken. The airplane and the crew are very valuable assets, we can’t afford to lose many of them. So this is good insurance.

  • If I want an example of wasteful spending, the budgets of the Departments of Energy and Education come to mind more quickly than rural airports. :^)

  • Wow… tell me how I can sign up to get hundreds of thousands a year for nothing!

  • Dr Luther in the 21st Century

    My first question is the length of the runway, because it could tell us a lot about why they pay to maintain it. If it is long enough to land a good size jet, it is a dispersal field. Most dispersal fields are active airports but a few are inactive and of those some were former bases. They are hold overs from the Cold War when the military had a strong need to disperse its planes to prevent their destruction by a single missile. As others noted they probably kept it partly out of inertia and partly because they are useful in emergencies.

  • Joe

    And partly because “who cares if we still need it is not real money anyway …”

  • Gene Veith

    This is apparently just a little airfield built for tourism purposes originally, so golfers can fly in to the resort. It is NOT for military aircraft or for big jets. And if it serves a purpose, it is surely over funded, since it is unable to spend the $150,000 per year it gets allocated.