I have a prediction. Small regional airports are going to become a thing of the past. I said it, now why do I believe that is so?
In one of the regional service centers of Maine, there resides a small airport. As with a lot of small towns, these airports can often turn into a burden for the local government to keep up with, and often require massive transfer of funding from federal and state sources. To obfuscate things a bit I am going to refrain from links. Guess the picture location, fine, but don’t tell any of my future employers.
This particular airport is going to require about $500k in local monies, $500k in state funds, and about $9million from the federal government to make necessary repairs.
As a want-to-be planner I ask questions such as:
Knowing full well that most municipalities will take on a transfer of wealth from a larger geopolitical entity (state/federal) and spend a small amount locally as a match, because that means local jobs and a will result in a brief economic opportunity for the region. Pavement must be laid, engineering, instruments purchased and installed, but what is it really bringing to the area after all the subsidization has been sifted through? Perhaps it makes sense for municipalities to do these things regardless of the costs.
How about if we framed this in terms of opportunity costs? What is the basket of lost opportunities that are no longer an option, because we spent our money in this way? Considering the cost of bringing railroad service to Brunswick, what if towns in Maine that are along viable rail lines, reestablish service? How many airport upgrades is that worth? How many more people’s mobility opportunities will change as a result? As I understand it, only about 24 planes call this particular airport home. That represents one passenger rail car of people with some room to spare.
I also thought about what else the land could do. How many people could have fresh local food if it were dedicated to growing food and raising livestock. It turns out that there are over 260 acres tied up for this airport that in 2007 had less that 500 flight operations (can be interpreted as 250 takeoffs, 250 landings). I don’t know much about agricultural productivity, but I bet you could feed quite a few people and create a more resilient local food economy.
I am not sure what the right answer is to this predicament. Turning down free money is never going to be an easy political sell, because it does create jobs and bolsters the local economy, however collectively we are propping up systems that have no real future in a world of scarce oil and fiscal austerity. Perhaps it is time to change the game plan to something new, perhaps something old even?