Meanwhile, back at the Airport Authority …
Buried in the 13th and last paragraph of an Allegheny County Airport Authority’s news release that construction will resume on the “Terminal Modernization Project” at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) is this little ditty:
“The total project budget stands at $1.39 billion, up from $1.1 billion when it was announced in September 2017. The increases come from design evolution agreed to by the airlines—who are the primary funders of the project—and the cost of the one-year pandemic delay.”
That the authority chose to treat a nearly $300 million (26.36 percent) spike in the price of a project noted more for its dubiety and nimiety than its efficacy and economy as a 13th and final paragraph afterthought is troubling.
As is the fact that airlines expected to pay for and use the new PIT landside terminal have yet to sign long-term lease agreements to do just that. It’s a fact that is only alluded to in the news release’s sixth paragraph.
All this buried and alluded to “good news” might just make reasonable people ask if the public might be left with a structural steel shell monument to placing the proverbial cart before the horse.
As for the argument that the airlines “are the primary funders of the project,” that’s become more than a bit of whistling past the facts. Given that the airlines have been bailed out with billions of public dollars because of the pandemic – and the same goes for the tens of millions that PIT has received and likely more to come — and that money is fungible, the reality is that there’s a ton of taxpayer dollars going into the PIT “modernization.”
And that doesn’t even mention gambling and natural gas dollars going to the Airport Authority. And, yes, that is public money controlled by a public authority.
The Airport Authority’s news release opens by calling the terminal modernization “a critical infrastructure project that will advance the region’s pandemic recovery and inspire the return of travel with a new tech-forward, public health-centered terminal.”
But at this point that remains the wishful thinking of bureaucrats who have a history of attempting to command demand by bribing airlines to fly in and out of PIT and, more often than not, leading to the predictable result – failure.
In her annual State of the Airport remarks delivered two days before the aforementioned news release was posted on the Airport Authority’s Blue Sky News public relations organ, Authority CEO Christina Cassotis contended that before the coronavirus pandemic hit, “this region was in the midst of a renaissance, with people coming from all over the world to do business and conduct research, to study and yes, to visit.”
“Renaissance”? What renaissance? As Frank Gamrat, executive director of the Allegheny Institute, noted six weeks before the pandemic hit (in Policy Brief Vol. 20, No. 3):
“In short, Allegheny County’s economic performance, as measured by household employment and labor force gains in comparison with the nation and state and several (comparable) counties, has not fared well over the last two decades,” he reported in the Jan. 22, 2020, white paper.
“Of course, part of that story is tied with the loss of population,” he reminded. “But it all comes down to the availability of jobs and the business climate. Job availability draws people to a county and boosts labor force and employment levels.”
If that two decades of economic anemia is to what Cassotis refers, Greater Pittsburgh’s leadership deficit is worse than even we thought.
“Until the county” – and it should be argued, the state – “reverses course and becomes more welcoming to businesses –without using public subsidies to draw them here –the slow growth that characterized the first two decades of this millennium will continue,” Gamrat concludes.
And no amount of happy talk that purposely ignores the facts that command economics never works can change the need for such a sound public policy prescription.
Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (email@example.com).