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Some Activists Are Fighting A Plan To Privatize The St. Louis Airport


In St. Louis, a long list of companies are competing for a chance to take over the city's airport. Some see a potential deal as a cash cow for a city in need. Others worry that privatization will lead to conflicts of interest that, in the long run, will hurt residents. From St. Louis Public Radio, Corinne Ruff reports on the debate.

CORINNE RUFF, BYLINE: If you ever flew with TWA back in the '80s or '90s, it's likely you changed planes at St. Louis Lambert International Airport. Back then, it was a bustling airport hub for TWA, but Lambert took a big hit in the early 2000s after the airline was bought out and ultimately folded. The added debt the airport took on to build a billion-dollar runway didn't help either.

Today, though, the midsize airport appears to be slowly making a comeback. It plans to pay down most of its debt in the next few years and still pumps about $7 million a year into the city's coffers. But some city officials say that's not enough. They argue they could make a lot more with a private company in charge, estimating a long-term lease could be worth upwards of $2 billion. St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson says she's obliged to pursue bids.

LYDA KREWSON: We need to be thinking about, long-term, the good of our airport and what the future of air travel looks like.

RUFF: But here, opponents are concerned about how the process has played out and just who stands to benefit most. For more than a year, a local billionaire has paid for more than a dozen airport consultants to study feasibility. It's costing him nearly a million dollars a month, money he'll get back from the city only if the project goes through. Former city officials, including the mayor, kicked off the privatization process have also been involved as lobbyists. All of this deeply concerns Comptroller Darlene Green.

DARLENE GREEN: I believe this is a thinly veiled attempt to strip it of its cash and its assets and to leave it there. And it will leave the future citizens of St. Louis to repair the damage.

RUFF: Green will get a say in the issue but thinks the public should weigh in, too. Advocacy groups complain they've largely been left in the dark about what a private operator would mean for residents who use the airport and work there. So far, efforts to trigger a public vote have fallen flat, but Green is calling on elected officials to put it on the ballot.

GREEN: It should be a binding public vote, and that will show us what the city of St. Louis citizens think about this privatization.

RUFF: This has implications for other cities, too. If a deal goes through, it would make St. Louis home to the only privatized U.S. airport outside of Puerto Rico. Janet Bednarek teaches airport history at the University of Dayton. She says U.S. airports have stayed under public control because they're considered key drivers of economic growth. Leasing them out means trusting someone else to operate them in a way that serves the public.

JANET BEDNAREK: Private corporations do not operate in the public good. They operate for their shareholders. And that's a problem with privatization.

RUFF: Some companies see airports as good long-term investments and are happy to fix up terminals so long as they can reap their revenue over decades. In some places, the model appears to be working. At LaGuardia Airport in New York, there's a $4 billion terminal renovation underway funded in large part by private capital. But in August, Denver International Airport pulled the plug on its massive partial privatization deal, which left the city on the hook for $200 million. What ultimately happens here in St. Louis could have an effect on whether other airports across the country stay public or go private.

For NPR News, I'm Corinne Ruff in St. Louis.

(SOUNDBITE OF RL GRIME SONG, "LIGHT ME UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corinne Ruff
Corinne Ruff joined St. Louis Public Radio as the economic development reporter in April, 2019. She grew up among the cornfields in Northern Illinois and later earned degrees in Journalism and French at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has since reported at the international, national and local level on business, education and social justice issues.