Southern Illinois taxpayers spend $134.4M since 2002 to keep airport open

Southern Illinois taxpayers spend $134.4M since 2002 to keep airport open

An underused airport near Belleville, Illinois, has required local taxpayers to chip in $134.4 million since 2002 to keep it operating.

St. Clair County taxpayers had to nearly double their contribution to almost $10 million to keep MidAmerica St. Louis Airport open during 2022, according to a new audit. That brings the grand total since 2002 to $134.4 million in transfers from other county funds to fill the airport’s deficits.

The $9.86 million subsidy was up from the $5.03 million needed in 2021 and $8.17 million needed in 2020. It included $4.5 million in debt service.

Airport operations expenses increased to $21.6 million in 2022 from $19.8 million the year before. Expenses included $1 million for runway maintenance and $583,000 more for pensions and retiree benefits.

The airport in the Illinois portion of the St. Louis metropolitan area is currently being expanded, with 42,000 square feet being added to the terminal and the MetroLink light rail system being extended to it from nearby Scott Air Force Base. Federal taxes are funding the terminal expansion.

Illinois is investing $98 million in the light rail extension – which reportedly resulted from a one-paragraph request by the county to Gov. J.B. Pritzker after federal authorities for years refused to fund it over concerns there was not enough traffic to the airport. The county still needs more money for the project and is seeking it. When completed, MetroLink passengers will be able to travel between Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and MidAmerica Airport, but how many will do so remains a question.

Passenger traffic was up slightly in 2022 to 162,819 enplanements from 161,562 the year before. It had dropped to about 108,000 during the pandemic.

County leaders also point to an expansion by Boeing at the airport to build U.S. Navy drones, expected to bring 250 jobs initially and 500 eventually. Boeing is spending $200 million so it can produce the drones at MidAmerica.

MidAmerica won’t fully pay off its construction debt until 2045 because St. Clair County leaders in 2015 refinanced the remaining $40 million and stretched out repayment. That move more than doubled taxpayers’ debt burden to $88 million.

The airport was built for $300 million in 1995 to provide passenger and cargo service as well as serve neighboring Scott Air Force Base with a longer runway than the parallel base runway. It also has cargo operations, a corporate jet renovation and maintenance business and the Boeing production facility.

Allegiant Air is the sole airline operating at the airport on the outskirts of Belleville, Illinois. It currently offers 11 destinations, down from 13 in 2021 and only seven the year before.

Resources flowing to a project unable to exist without drawing $10 million from other county needs should concern St. Clair County homeowners. They should also ask how bailing out the airport is affecting their property taxes and home values, especially the value of a rural home where they rarely see a sheriff’s deputy on patrol because that money is keeping an airport staffed.

Shortly after the airport opened in 1997, it was the subject of a segment on NBC News’ “The Fleecing of America.” NBC returned in 2010 and again in 2015 to find the airport in sad shape.

In the 26 years since it opened, the airport has suffered a string of failed passenger carriers and unsuccessful attempts to build its cargo business, earning monikers such as the “Gateway to Nowhere.” It appears to have adopted the “Field of Dreams” development philosophy, but more and more is being added at taxpayers’ expense to get them to come to it.

While the Boeing expansion is a major benefit to southwestern Illinois, the question remains: “Why can’t MidAmerica Airport exist without taxpayers bailing it out every year?” After 26 years and $134.4 million in subsidies, taxpayers should push MidAmerica from the nest.

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