Panhandle airport boondoggleIt would cost all Florida taxpayers dearly

Hold onto your wallets, Florida taxpayers. While property-tax relief dominates headlines, the Legislature and household budgets, your leaders are expecting you to pay for a multimillion-dollar boondoggle in the Panhandle.

It's the proposed Panama City-Bay County International Airport in the middle of nowhere, bigger than the Tampa Bay International Airport, and slated to be built on wetlands northwest of Panama City. It's a corporate welfare project for developers that will suck up $331 million (or more -- the costs keep rising) of public funds.

Maybe this ill-conceived Panhandle airport plan hasn't received much attention because it's happening in an out-of-the-way part of the state. But Floridians can't afford to ignore it anymore.

With Florida's cities and counties anticipating budget cuts, it's time to pull the plug on this pet airport for the state's biggest landowner, the St. Joe Co. It's time to use those hundreds of millions of public dollars wisely.

A new airport isn't even needed. There's already an airport in Panama City, which recently got a multimillion-dollar new terminal, and is nearly empty most of the time. A recent Federal Aviation Administration study said there's no need for extra capacity in Northwest Florida for at least the next 20 years. Traffic has fallen in the past six years, from 22 round-trip airline flights per day in 2001 to just 13 per day in 2007.

Taxpayers are on the hook for this unnecessary project because St. Joe wants to develop its vast holdings in the western Panhandle that include cypress swamps and wetlands. These wetlands provide natural protection against Gulf Coast hurricanes as well as a home for a wide range of wildlife. To make these remote lands more accessible, St. Joe donated 4,000 acres for the new airport. But the public will pay for new roads, drainage systems, sewer lines and water supplies -- infrastructure that can later be used for St. Joe's surrounding planned developments.

Even if Panama City did need a new airport, this is the wrong place to put it. The airport would destroy important springs and creeks that feed West Bay, one of the most biologically diverse estuaries in North America. Construction would require filling more than 1,900 acres of wetlands at the airport site, and subsequent development around the airport would destroy more than 7,000 wetland acres.

The new airport isn't even wanted by the population it would serve. It would be 30 miles from downtown, far more inaccessible than the current airport. In a non-binding referendum in 2004, Bay County voters rejected the airport relocation 54 percent to 46 percent, even though the ballot wording falsely promised the airport "at no cost to county taxpayers."

The airport has approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, but that approval is being challenged in court. Also still pending is the airport's wetland-destruction permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Florida's Department of Transportation has committed about $116 million of public money for the airport, and the FAA is sending another $72 million of public funds. DOT has promised to keep funding the new airport even though there's no need for it and the state is strapped for cash. If the airport fails -- and it very well could -- taxpayers will be on the hook for a bailout, too.

Gov. Charlie Crist says he wants to help Floridians who are struggling to pay their rising property taxes and keep their schools, hospitals and small businesses functioning. Here's one way: Stop funding the airport in the middle of nowhere, and stop using our hard-earned tax dollars for a giveaway to developers.

CONTACT: Fred Werner, a pilot from Panama City, is president of Friends of PFN, a general aviation group that supports the current location of the Panama City Airport.

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