Taxpayer tab totals $98M to keep southwestern Illinois airport open
Local leaders say more passengers will reduce the need for taxpayer money at MidAmerica St. Louis Airport. But as traffic rises, so too has the tab for St. Clair County taxpayers.
Public enterprise comes with a steep price tag in southwestern Illinois, where more passengers at St. Clair County-owned MidAmerica St. Louis Airport means more money from taxpayers.
The airport needed an $8.6 million infusion from county taxpayers to stay afloat in fiscal year 2017, according to the latest county audit. That brings the grand total to $98 million in county taxpayer money for the airport since fiscal year 2002, the earliest year for which auditors detail the airport subsidy.
County leaders claim more passengers will reduce the need for county tax dollars to cover the airport’s expenses. But the number of passengers has increased sharply in recent years – and so have taxpayer subsidies. From 2011 to 2017, passenger boardings increased to nearly 124,000 from 706, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA. But the airport’s tax subsidy nearly tripled during that time. County leaders project 150,000 passengers in 2018, according to the 2017 audit.
More passengers, coupled with an aging $300 million facility, are driving additional costs. The airport is working to secure up to $28 million in federal grant money from the FAA. The grant agreement would also require county taxpayers to pay more than $7 million over a three-year period, according to the Belleville News-Democrat. Funds would be used to restructure the airport to accommodate the increase in passengers, and bring facilities in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and post-9/11 regulations, Airport Director Tim Cantwell told the News-Democrat.
More passengers also means more parking: The county spent nearly $1 million to expand the airport’s parking area in 2017. The county also sees future growth if it can establish cargo service with Ningbo, China. County leaders spent $2.7 million on consultants in that pursuit, according to the News-Democrat.
But a larger menace looms behind those expenses: In 2015, county board members refinanced $40 million in debt dating back to the airport’s construction. They extended payments out to 2045, increasing taxpayers’ debt burden to $88 million. MidAmerica’s debt service payments cost the county nearly $5 million in 2017.
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 21 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” and “Glass Palace on the Prairie.”
But perhaps the best plan would be for county leaders to become better stewards of the public’s money, and to stop wasting tax dollars on attempts at making this unprofitable airport take off. For county taxpayers, the endeavor has been a direct flight to nowhere.