Environmentalists, tax watchdogs, free market advocates, and (most importantly) bus enthusiasts have teamed up to suggest that policymakers rethink taxpayer subsidies designed to keep small rural airports afloat. Their timing is prescient. Lawmakers only last month scuffled over whether to cut the Essential Air Services program; some Republicans say it represents political pork and federal bloat.
A study released last week by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Taxpayers for Common Sense, the Reason Foundation, and the American Bus Association, found that bus service from small towns to major airport hubs costs considerably less than the EAS-subsidized airline hops from rural airports. Bus service also results in less fuel consumption and unhealthy emissions, the study found.
The coalition analyzed 38 EAS communities that are within 150 miles of a large or medium hub airport. The taxpayer subsidies per year for flights from the small airports to the larger ones are $60.8 million; passengers pay an additional $70.7 million annually. Bus service from those same areas to major hubs could be provided at a total operating cost of $33.9 million, the study found. Bus service might take an hour or so than a short plane hop, so the authors added another $8 million to account for the extra time. Even with that caveat, the cost for bus service is about half that of the short flights.
The Essential Air Service subsidies were created in 1978 when the airline industry was deregulated, and times have changed since then. Air service isn't the only viable means of getting from one place to another, according to the groups funding the study. "Back in 1978, no one thought bus service was sexy," said Reason Foundation's senior transportation policy analyst Shirley Ybarra.
Does it make sense to maintain rural airports through subsidies? How important is it to for rural residents to be able to easily reach an airport? Have buses been given short shrift in federal policy? Even if the subsidies are eliminated for some areas, wouldn't it simply be easier to travel by car? When should the federal government step in to make sure everyone has access to at least one long-distance travel option?