Tiny Airports Get Big Cut of Stimulus Cash

Small airplane
More than $350 million of federal stimulus money is being spent on hundreds little-used airports or ones catering to recreational flyers, corporate jets and remote communities around the country, even as the nation's largest commercial airports are denied safety upgrades.
If you want to know your federal stimulus package dollars are already having an impact, you might want to look up. The small planes you spot could be bound for one of the hundreds of tiny airports that have landed big money from the government, as CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports.

In upstate New York, there's a tiny airport owned by the Williamson Flying Club, a private social club for local pilots.

Club President Joe Ebert is pleased to show off their brand new $400,000 runway, paid for by your tax dollars.

It's all new, he says, and it's all part of $1.1 billion in stimulus money handed out to more than 300 airports around the nation.

"We were looking for projects that airports in areas around the country desperately needed to be done for safety and security concerns," said Department of Transportation press secretary Sasha Johnson.

Yet some of the projects hardly seem urgent. And taxpayers may be surprised to find "that airports they never heard of in communities they will never visit are getting some of the maximum stimulus grants," says Michael Grabell of the non-profit journalism group ProPublica.

In fact, more than $350 million is being spent on little-used airports or ones catering to recreational flyers, corporate jets and remote communities.

That's because Congress' stimulus rules don't give priority to the most congested airports or biggest safety problems.

Consider that Los Angeles International doesn't have the money to install critical taxiway warning lights. And a third of the nation's largest airports - 11 of the 30 biggest, handling over one-fourth of the nation's passenger traffic - have substandard safety areas for when planes veer off the runway.

Yet tiny Purdue University Airport got $800,000 to help keep animals off the runway. That's even though they've reported just one incident: a plane ran over a skunk in 1996.

In Alaska, $15 million dollars went to build a bigger, better airport for the town of Ouizinkie - population just 165. That's roughly $90,000 dollars per resident.

The stimulus funds were granted by the FAA, under the Department of Transportation.

Asked why the costs at small airports shouldn't be borne by the people benefiting from them, Johnson said, "The community can't raise that kind of money. Rural airports deserve to be safe and kept up as much as other airports do."

She also points out small airports are used by rescue aircraft and cargo haulers, and the stimulus projects create jobs.

But nobody would tell us how many unemployed workers, if any, were hired to pave the Flying Club's runway. The whole job took just five days.

On the bright side, all airports that get stimulus funds are open to the public. So if you ever feel like flying to a little airport, there's one in upstate New York that's happy to spread out the welcome mat on their brand new runway.

See additional reporting on this subject from Propublica.org

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.