Airports. Once More With Feeling.

In the past we blogged about the municipal disaster known around here as the Palmdale Regional Airport. It came into being in the early 1970s under the nom de guerre of Los Angeles Intercontinental Airport, located in Palmdale, some 60 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. It was supposed to relieve pressure on LAX. But it proved to be a disaster. The City of Los Angeles took some 17,500 acres of high desert land for it by eminent domain, at a cost of some $100,000,000 (in early 1970s dollars). To make a long story short, airlines came and went, but none could make a go of it at that location. The airport was shut down a couple of years ago.

Why did it happen? Location, location and location. Not many people were intereseted in driving 60 miles to the airport, local passenger traffic was inadequate in spite of a $200 per passenger subsidy, and a rail line originally projected by Los Angeles planners did not materialize when the feds failed to come through with funding for it.

More recently, the New York Times carried a story about several small airports wasting millions of dollars on improvements that would serve only a few score people per day, but enjoyed the favor of powerful Congressmen ever-ready to glom on to some federal money and send it from Washington to their home districts. Now, another failing airport is in the news.

The New York Times (Patrick McGeehan, An Airport Whose Time May Not Come, Jan. 31, 2011, at p. A15) tells the story of the Stewart International Airport near Newburgh, N.Y., that “was supposed to be the long-sought fourth major airport to serve the New York metropolitan area.” But four years later “Stewart remains a mystery to most traveleres.” Truth to tell it was a mystery to us too, until that New York Times article showed up this morning.

For an Angeleno, like your faithful and obedient servant, reading the Times story was a deja vu experience. We already noted its location — 60 miles from the city (the same as the Palmdale fiasco), and — guess what? — the airport promoters were hoping to take advantage of a new express train to serve New York City. But that train was supposed to use a new tunnel under the Hudson River, and New Jersey, being in its right financial mind, has announced that, being broke, it will not contribute to its construction, thereby killing it. Sound familiar?

Bottom line: in 2007 Stewart Airport attracted 915,000 passengers, in 2008 it was down to 790,000, and in 2010 it is “on pace” to attract fewer than 400,000. An unmistakable trend. Stewart Airport’s operators blame the recession, and they may have something there. But even so, an airport, though serving the public, is a risk-carrying entrepreneurial activity, and as such subservient to the economy.

So is there any good news lurking in this dismal picture of waste of public funds? Kind of. At least, according to the Times, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that runs the local airports hasn’t taken the airport site by eminent domain — it leased it for 93 years for $79,000,000.

Your tax money at work.

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