Stimulus Money Spent on Questionable Airport Projects, IG Report Says

By Fred Lucas | August 18, 2009 | 5:41 PM EDT

( – Taxpayer dollars from the economic recovery act are going to airport projects that are not necessary, have a history of poor oversight and are unlikely to boost the economy, a government report said.
Some of the questionable projects included the use of about $28 million to replace two rural Alaska airports, both of which are within 10 miles of larger airports; $4.8 million for a new taxiway in Ohio and $909,806 for a runway design – not runway construction – in Delaware.
A report by Calvin L. Scovel, inspector general for the Department of Transportation, issued a report this month scolding the Federal Aviation Administration for not prioritizing its handing out of $1.1 billion in airport improvement grants. This was a preliminary report that Scovel said the office will be following up on shortly.
The grant money comes from the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed into law in February, better known as the stimulus act. The IG report states that the FAA did not abide by directives from President Barack Obama to ensure the money is wisely targeted.
On March 20, Obama directed all federal agencies to “develop transparent, merit-based selection criteria that will guide their available discretion in committing, obligating, or expending funds under the recovery act.”
Obama further precluded agencies from approving “any project that is imprudent or that does not further job creation, economic recovery and other purposes of the act.”
In addition to that, the IG report says the FAA failed to follow its own guidelines in determining grant recipients, under its National Priority Rating. The rating is set on a range of 0 to 100. Criteria are based on a project’s “potential contribution to increase safety and security, enhance capacity, and mitigate environmental effects.”
Typically, the minimum score to be eligible for a grant is 40 or 42, the report said. However, the FAA announced it would raise that score to 62 with regards to receiving stimulus money.
That pledge didn’t stick, the report said, as more than 50 of the 263 grants were awarded to projects that fell below the 62 threshold. As of Aug. 3, the grant obligations totaled $873.9 million, with a total disbursement of $38.7 million.
The two Alaska projects only had a score of 40.
A grant of $13.9 million went to replace the airport in Akiachak, Alaska, which has a population of 659 people and is within seven miles of two other airfields, according to the report. It averages 57 flights per week.
Also, $14.7 million to replace the airport Ouzinkie, Alaska, which has 167 resident, is 14 nautical miles from Bethel, home of the state’s largest airport, the IG report says. It averages 42 flights per week.
The FAA said the grants were awarded based on “1) projects were ready to go, 2) projects could be completed within the, 2-year ARRA timeframe, and 3) projects would help ensure widespread geographic distribution of funds.”
Scovel said geography should not be a priority.
“The third, however, is not an ARRA requirement,” the report said. “While FAA incorporated geography in its selections, we found no evidence in FAA’s project justification documents that agency officials considered the long-term economic merits for those six lower-ranked NPR [National Priority Rating] projects.”
Four other projects scored between 43 and 50, according to the IG report.
A grant of $4.8 million went for a new taxiway at the Findley Airport in Ohio; $2.2 million went for a runway extension at Wilbur Airport in Washington state; $2 million for an apron at Warrensburg-Skyhaven Airport in Missouri; and $909,806 to design a new runway at an air park near Dover, Del.
The FAA said the Delaware project was chosen, because it was the only project ready to go.
Although, four other grant recipients have “multi-year histories of grant management problems. An example was a $658,730 grant to the Owensboro-Daviess County airport in Kentucky “despite reports citing poor administration of AIP funds for 10 of the past 11 years.”
A total of $15 million was spent on grants for airports with similarly questionable longstanding problems in such areas as “cash management, procurement and suspensions and debarments, and allowable costs.”
In addition to the Kentucky airport, these include the Guam International Airport, the Pitkin County Airport in Colorado, and the Puerto Rico Port Authority.
Speaking to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 24, Obama said, “I have told each of my cabinet, as well as mayors and governors across the country, that they will be held accountable by me and the American people for every dollar they spend,” Obama said.
The report shows the administration is not living up to this pledge, said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
“Despite their promises, this administration has failed to address the inefficient way in which the federal government administers and manages taxpayer’s dollars,” Issa said.
“Federal agencies are being asked to absorb an unprecedented level of new funding and there is no way we can achieve fiscal solvency if we continue to look the other way while hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars go unaccounted for,” he added.