THE Mercer County airport, having lost its subsidy under the federal Essential Air Service program, is losing commercial flights from Colgan Air. Local officials are naturally upset about it.
But what is unwelcome news in Mercer County is heralded by taxpayer groups. The Essential Air Service program is one of the dirty little secrets of a spendthrift Congress - a wide-open spigot that burns millions of taxpayer dollars, decade after decade.
The program was begun as a temporary measure in 1978 to help remote communities adjust to deregulation of the airline industry, but members of Congress made the program permanent in 1998. Since then, it has grown astronomically.
In April, the bean counters of the Government Accountability Office, whose task it is to swim against the tide of wasteful spending, gently confronted members of the House with the results of their handiwork:
A program that covered 95 communities and cost $25.9 million in 1997 covered 145 communities at a cost $109.4 million by 2007.
The average number of people on subsidized flights is about three. The median subsidy per passenger is $98, but in one case is $677 per passenger. Excluding Alaska because of its extreme remoteness, the average subsidy per community is $754,000.
Said the agency delicately: "Concerns exist about the costs of the program, particularly given the federal government's long-term structural fiscal imbalance."
Five West Virginia communities now receive subsidies: Beckley, which put an average of 6.3 passengers on a plane each day, has a per-passenger subsidy of $247.12. Bluefield's numbers were about the same.
In Clarksburg-Fairmont, which put an average of 27.6 people on planes per day, the per-passenger subsidy was $17.72. In Greenbrier County, it was $54.50. In Morgantown, it was $13.68, and in Parkersburg, $13.50.
Ask the average taxpayer for $677 so someone can fly to South Dakota and the taxpayer will tell the petitioner to take a flying leap. Nobody would part with his own money this way. It would be crazy.
But Americans seem to view federal spending as other people's money - somehow entirely different, which is why spending, taxes and the deficit are what they are.
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EAS, Small Community Air Service Development Program