Rarely-used airports get millions of federal dollars
A 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS Tracking Your Money investigation revealed rarely-used airports in Minnesota are receiving millions of federal dollars to make improvements.
The investigation showed that in the next five years Minnesota airports without commercial airline service will get or try to get $411 million dollars.
The money comes directly or indirectly from tax payers in the form of taxes on airline tickets and fuel.
To get the federal dollars, cities and towns must put up 5 percent of the total cost of the project.
For example, Blue Earth, which is hoping for $6 million federal to expand its airport would be required to come up with $300,000. This at a time when the city is considering reducing overtime for police and cutting aid to the senior center, city library, and pool.
City council members John Huisman and Les Wiborg said it does not really make sense.
Wiborg said, "It is a nice little airport but it doesn't have the traffic to justify the money."
Blue Earth's own city records show a plane lands and takes off about once every five days.
The FAA's formula for distributing the money is based on the number of flights in and out of an airport. Those airports with more traffic get more money.
But there are no control towers at most small airports, so the federal government relies on two sources of data. The first is traffic estimates by the same cities trying to get the money. The second is surveys of area plane owners about future airport use.
Paul Sanders, the manager of the airport in Jackson, Minn., said he thinks some people probably inflate the numbers.
"There is a big pot of gold at the end of that inflation. You get a bigger airport, you get more traffic, you sell more gas, you do more maintenance," said Sanders. "It is a feather in the city's hat."
Jackson is the only small airport in Minnesota 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS could find trying to accurately count planes even when no one is around. A motion-triggered camera documents every arrival and departure.
He said, "Say we get a 5000 foot runway at Jackson, I don't want to sit there and look at that thing every day and say say you know, I had to lie through my teeth to get that. I don't want that."
Supporters of the projects say they do the best they can when providing traffic counts. They also say the need to keep small airports open and safe is critical.
Merton Auger, the city administrator of Buffalo which also has its own airport, said, "We're improving the safety of the airport and hopefully we're creating potential economic windfall in the city."