Breaking ground & digging another hole

Breaking ground & digging another hole

Allegheny County officials formally broke ground on Thursday for the dubious $1.4 billion “Terminal Modernization Program” at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT). But plenty of questions remain, some old and some new.

In an effort to “right-size” the Findlay Township facility, PIT’s “landside terminal” will be scrapped (either demolished or repurposed) and a new one, closer to the “airside terminal,” will be built.

Allegheny County Airport Authority officials have argued that it’s more cost-effective to build anew than to maintain the hardly old 30-year-old ticketing, baggage and security terminal.

Frankly, that rationale remains hard to swallow. And reasonable people might be left to wonder if officials might have allowed the existing facility to decay to create a “need” for “modernization.”

Hard to swallow, too, is the rationale that the new terminal is worth it because it supposedly will be a massive jobs generator with all kinds of multiplier effects.

Most of those jobs, of course, will be temporary and studies promoting such grand ancillary economic benefits invariably are overstated. You might call it grand public larceny.

Jake Haulk, president-emeritus of the Allegheny Institute, asks and states the obvious:

“How is downsizing an airport a net contribution to the economy?” the Ph.D. economist asks. “Why not just close a concourse or two (in the airside terminal)?”

In a word, it is an “absurd” proposition,” Haulk says.

And that’s especially true in a climate in which PIT struggles to keep what we’ll call “passenger pace” with even peer airports around the country.

The Airport Authority also has latched onto a new boilerplate talking point that the new PIT terminal will be “the first in the country to be built from the ground-up post-pandemic.”

“So that’s their brag item—the first since the pandemic?” notes Frank Gamrat, executive director of the Pittsburgh think tank. “This will do nothing for the local economy.”

It’s an economy that has badly lagged national economic growth and that of peer metropolitan areas for decades.

And that’s despite publicly subsidized project after publicly subsidized project — from a new baseball park, football stadium and hockey arena, to a white elephant of a new convention center and light-rail follies – that, in each instance, were touted as being nothing less than supercharged engines of economic growth.

Never happened, did it?

Airports do nothing to create economic growth. But they do facilitate it when that natural growth creates a demand for air travel. The double paucity of growth and demand in Greater Pittsburgh is as striking as it is predictable, given pols’ political agendas constantly masquerading as “necessary” public policy.

Airport Authority officials also defend the new terminal project by constantly reminding that “no local tax dollars will be used”; the airlines will pay off the bulk of the construction bonds.

But there still are plenty of local public dollars in this project, including gambling tax proceeds conveniently, and into infinity, diverted to the Airport Authority by sneaky state legislators and royalties from natural gas wells on authority property.

All that said, the authority’s “news story” from its in-house public relations site (Blue Sky News) raises a few new questions.

The article touts a fair amount of gobbledygook smoke-blowing about how the new terminal “represents the region’s DNA” and that “it will mirror Pittsburgh and our many rich cultures.”

Then there’s the project’s “focus on public health and technology.”

And lest we forget, there’s the touting of the new terminal project seeking LEED certification for its supposed environmental prowess. LEED is the acronym for the U.S. Green Building Council’s “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.”

Never mind, however, that a significant body of research suggests – wait for it – that “LEED certification fails to increase energy efficiency,” reminds the Environmental Policy Alliance.

And here we thought the stated purpose of the Terminal Modernization Program was to better move the traveling public at a more affordable cost.

Silly us.

Groundbreakings for public works projects such as the new terminal program at PIT are fanfare-filled events in which public officials sell a usually nodding-in-approval cadre of special invitees and the public in general their latest bill of goods.

But a careful look behind all the accolades, back-slapping, brace-snapping and grand promises reiterated typically reveals the simple fact that another hole is being dug in the name of faux “progress.”

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).