The Brookings Institution released a report last week with an astonishing (and potentially controversial) finding: Airports in the largest 100 metro areas handle 96 percent of all international passengers, but they receive only 36 percent of federal funds for infrastructure maintenance and improvements.
The policy argument behind the project is simple, but it has implications far beyond aviation. The authors argue that the government should find out where the international air traffic is and take advantage of it by investing more in those places, not less. "International aviation is one of the fastest growing portions of the national transportation network and an important way to tap into metropolitan-led global economic growth," the report says. Imagine if such an argument were applied to the highway system, the electricity grid, or the postal system--all of which are based on universal utility in rural and urban areas alike.
I can hear the howls from rural representatives on Capitol Hill (and from K Street) about the federal recommendations in this report:
* Calibrate Airport Improvement Program payments to the passenger flow, rather than retaining funds for smaller, less trafficked airports and private planes.
* Scale back the Essential Air Services rural subsidies to communities that are at least 300 miles from a small to medium hub airport, which "would provide at least some modicum of relief to major metro areas and make EAS a more efficient use of taxpayer money."
* Raise the cap on the $4.50 per passenger that is collected by public commercial airports to facilitate their upkeep.
These programs traditionally have been negotiated by lawmakers who want to make sure small and large travel areas get their fair share, regardless of how much business they conduct. Still, it's worth considering how federal infrastructure dollars can be better attuned to the actual flow of traffic. At a minimum, investing more heavily in high-traffic areas ensures less dire consequences if some part of the apparatus fails and backups occur.
What are the advantages of tailoring aviation investment to the areas with the highest traffic? What are the disadvantages? Can the ideas for aviation be replicated in surface transportation? What protections need to be in place for underserved? How do these ideas impact the notion that all citizens should have access to public transportation?