More Airport Authority fun & games

More Airport Authority fun & games

Why did it take Allegheny County officials more than a month to reveal that the controversial vice-chairman of the county Airport Authority had resigned?

The Post-Gazette reported Monday afternoon, on the 29th day of April, that Robert Lewis resigned on March 22. March 22? Additionally, a county spokeswoman says Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald already has been considering replacements.

So much for a public authority’s timely dissemination of public information.

In his resignation letter, as reported by the Pittsburgh Business Times, Lewis had the audacity to “express grave concern for how my colleagues on the board will continue to be able to make appropriate and necessary decisions without constant scrutiny and attacks.”

Never mind that the public has an obligation to scrutinize the actions of any public authority. So does the media, on behalf of the public.

The resignation is all the more curious considering it turned out that Lewis was one of three Airport Authority board members who had invested in OneJet — an airline, now bankrupt and no longer flying, an airline that stuck the public for most of the $1 million in public money it wriggled from the authority, which was forced to sue in an attempt to recover the money.

And Lewis’ investment was not chicken feed. It is reported to have been in excess of a quarter-million dollars.

Lewis and two other board members divested of their investments — but only after the board barred such clear conflicts. Why that was not considered to be a conflict from the get-go is a basic good-government question.

That said, the Lewis investment supposedly was A-OK because Lewis did not vote to ratify the OneJet subsidy. Which is more than a bit disingenuous considering the board gave Authority CEO Christina Cassotis sole power to dole out subsidies of any amount to any airline.

While all that might now be considered bad public policy under the bridge, the fact that there apparently was no public announcement at the end of March that Lewis had quit only affirms the need for greater transparency at the authority and the need for greater oversight.

As does Lewis’ obvious disdain for public scrutiny of his actions.

The Airport Authority’s plan to reconfigure Pittsburgh International Airport is not off to a good start.

It was in September 2017 that the authority, virtually out of the blue, sprung on the public a $1.1 billion plan to tear down or repurpose the existing landside terminal and build a new terminal to handle ticketing, baggage and security.

Public input was an afterthought – save for interior decorating, it seems.

Now, more than a year and half later, comes word that the stated $1.1 billion price tag was quite ephemeral.

Buried in a recent Post-Gazette story on some of the first contracts to be let for the project was this gem:

“(Airport Authority CEO Christina) Cassotis is expecting the $1.1 billion price tag to increase once architects finish the schematic design. She called the figure a ‘placeholder’ based on a ‘very, very early design.’”

Uh-oh.  That’s no way to run a railroad, let alone an airport authority.

So, what’s the final tally going to be?

How much is this project really going to cost?

If the Airport Authority’s Department of Loosey-Goosey really doesn’t know, the public is in for a very unsound public policy ride.

Airport Authority officials love to repeat (and repeat) that “no local tax dollars” will be used for this project. That is, the airport re-do will be financed by bonds using revenues from the airlines, concessions, parking and natural gas drilling.

But local, state and federal public money certainly flows to the authority and airport. And few doubt that, as the airport project cost bloats, even more public dollars will be tapped.

As House Speaker Mike Turzai (who’s been receiving lots of organized blowback for his proposal to make the authority’s board more accountable) reminded in a P-G commentary, there’s “$12.4 million in state gaming revenue that goes to the airport annually” and “more than $65 million has been given to the airport since 2004 through taxpayer-funded state grants and loans.”

Remember this the next time those at the Airport Authority engage in who-pays-what semantics. And also remember that the agency is a public authority, accountable to – GASP! — the public.

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