Should the U.S. subsidize service to rural airports?

Funding for airport improvements and road repairs is up in the air as Congress deliberates on the federal government's role in supporting U.S. transportation infrastructure.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

The future of transportation in America is up in the air.

Members of Congress this morning passed a short-term funding extension for the Federal Aviation Administration as well as various highway improvement projects, delaying for another day tough decisions the federal government must make about how much it wants to help support infrastructure and transportation projects across the nation.

Without the extension, highway and transit funding would have expired on September 30.

The Center for Public Integrity's Corbin Hiar points out that among the airline ticket taxes, gasoline taxes, airport improvements and road upgrades, the extension also continues a small but controversial program to subsidize service to rural airports that are too isolated to turn a profit for airlines.

The program, designed to last just eight years but is now more than three decades old, targets communities more than a 70-mile drive from the nearest major hub airport. It serves 153 towns and costs $200 million annually.

Hiar reports:

With growing political and economic pressure to reduce spending, some in Washington are focusing renewed attention on a subsidy program that, for example, has allowed constituents of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to fly from Ely, Nev., to Denver for as little as $70 -- even though the cost of each ticket to taxpayers is reportedly $4,107 . A standoff over the program was at the root of a two-week FAA shutdown this summer and threatened earlier this week to shutter the agency again.

In terms of utility, it's a mixed bag: Without alternatives, Alaska residents rely on the program heavily; meanwhile, residents of Jonesboro, Ark. receive a hefty subsidy despite being 79 miles from Nashville.

For the people who live in these communities, there's no doubt that it's helpful. But the program is a major touchpoint for the larger debate of how the United States should grow -- and the federal government's role in it.

Should lawmakers enact policy that encourages more dense settlement? Or should it support a distributed population, even if it's financially unsustainable?

And are there ways that rural airports could support themselves, without requiring a government handout? (Is air travel a right?)

It's just another example of a tough decision representatives must make in terms of the role of federal government. A smaller, financially stable government at the expense of growth? Or an over-stretched, larger one at the expense of solvency?

Photo: Kevin Dooley/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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