$120 Million For Airport: Necessity Or Waste?

Oct. 3--PANAMA -- CITY, Fla. -- Only 13 commercial flights leave the Panama City-Bay County International Airport every day. Passengers walk out onto the tarmac to board 74-passenger turboprops that deliver them to Atlanta or some other airline...

A year later, St. Joe offered to donate 4,000 acres in the West Bay area of the county for a new airport. St. Joe, which owns 50 percent of the land in Bay County, was primarily a timber company until the mid-1990s when it entered residential and commercial development.

Peter Rummell, St. Joe's chairman and chief executive officer, made it clear to Bay County leaders that the company needed a new airport to make its planned residential and commercial developments successful.

"It is becoming more and more clear that a replacement airport is a necessity," Rummell wrote the airport authority in November 1999. "Doing nothing is not an option."

Opponents of the project think St. Joe's political muscle greased the way for the state and federal grants. Rummell has made significant contributions to the campaigns of President Bush and his brother, former Gov. Jeb Bush. Rummell was named a "Pioneer" for bundling contributions of $100,000 or more for the president.

Rummell and other company officers and affiliates contributed $71,000 to the Florida Republican Party from 1998 to 2006, and $14,000 to Jeb Bush's campaigns during the same period. Rummell and his wife gave $20,000 to the Republican National Committee during the 2000 presidential race.

St. Joe owns almost 80,000 acres in the thinly populated West Bay area where the airport is supposed to be built. The company wants to build 5,842 custom homes there, many costing $1 million or more, and 4.4 million square feet of commercial space. Company officials say the airport is vital to those developments.

Don Hodges, a retired engineer who once helped plan Delta airport facilities, rejects the "build it and they will come" philosophy as a poor justification for expending hundreds of millions of dollars in public money.

"It's not an aviation project; it's a land deal," said Hodges, who lives in Bay County.

Grant Approval

Last year, 359,949 passengers flew in or out of Panama City's airport. The number of total passengers will rise to 581,000 by 2038 if a new airport is built, according to a cost benefit analysis prepared by airport consultants.

The consultants also projected that the total passengers at the existing airport would increase to 542,000 during the same 30-year period. Hodges argues that the 39,000 difference in passengers between the existing and new airports could be handled by one 737 jet airliner or two or three smaller regional jets, hardly a reason to expend hundreds of millions in public dollars.

Hodges' opinion about the potential aviation benefits of a new airport were echoed in a May 25 letter from Rusty Chapman, FAA airports division manager, to airport Director Randy Curtis. Chapman said that building a replacement airport would provide "only slight capacity gains."

FAA's Policy Division had similar concerns two years ago when the airport authority submitted a draft cost-benefit analysis in support of an application for a $95 million grant. The FAA analysts saw no positive benefit derived by a new airport in terms of lower fares or a greater choice of air carriers, according to a February 2006 letter to Curtis from the airport's consultant.

The FAA did not accept the airport authority's analysis which forecast "increased service at the new airport due to the longer runway and improved location," the consultant wrote.

Yet the FAA later approved a $71 million grant, citing safety concerns at the existing airport. The 6,300-foot runway is considered too short for regular use by larger jets, and there is not enough room for adequate safety zones to stop jets that overshoot the runway, the FAA said. The airport is constrained by the waters of St. Andrews Bay and by residential neighborhoods.

"We looked at all their needs and concluded that the existing airport does not meet our standards," Chapman said. "We concluded that over several years, some of the work they need to do at the existing airport would come up to the $70 million range."

In other words, the FAA approved the amount of money it would take to alleviate safety concerns at the existing airport, and is allowing that amount to be spent on a new airport.

Future Flights

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