Best Boondoggle

The Lambert Airport expansion

If only the powers that be had said upfront that the $2.6 billion W-1W runway project was a throwback to the old Depression-era Works Progress Administration, a way to use federal money for make-work projects that might have some vague general benefit. But no, that would have been too honest. Instead, the boosters said the new runway was essential to the economic growth of the region and absolutely had to be done to preserve the envied hub status St. Louis possessed through TWA (and later American Airlines). Even when groups representing the pilots and the air-traffic controllers said the plan was too costly and wouldn't expand capacity sufficiently or safely, the bulldozers rolled on. Then each year from 1995 on, there were fewer takeoffs and landings at Lambert. Fewer flights were delayed, and the average length of a delay became shorter. That all occurred before the watershed of September 11, 2001. Then TWA went bankrupt in order to be bought by American. And finally, this past July, American cut the "hub" in half by dropping more than 200 daily flights. Still, the bulldozers rolled on. The justification became that W1-W was planned so that even if the airport operated at 55 percent of its capacity, the air traffic would generate revenues to cover the costs of the new runway. At least with the WPA, the city would have ended up with something useful: a bridge, a post office or a new federal building. Instead, all that money will buy is an empty runway.
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