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FAA Low Priorities Get $3.5 Billion in Grants

WASHINGTON - Airports have spent $3.5 billion in federal money since 1998 on projects the Federal Aviation Administration rated as low priority because they do little to improve the most pressing needs in the nation's aviation system, a USA TODAY analysis shows.

The money comes from a program that is supposed to improve aviation safety. Priority goes to projects such as runways, taxiways and beacons.

But the program also has funded terminals at little-used airports, hangars to store private jets, and parking areas that are free to customers, according to the analysis of FAA records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Other findings:

- The amount of money spent on low-priority projects hit a record $507 million in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. That's nearly five times the amount in 1998, when the FAA established a new ranking system for airport projects.

- More than $2 billion in low-priority funds has gone to airports used mostly by private jets and piston-engine planes, including $700 million for terminals. Pellston Regional Airport in Michigan used $7.5 million in federal funds to build a terminal with stone fireplaces and cathedral ceilings. The airport averages three departures a day.

- Congress helped increase low-priority spending by allowing 2,800 airports used by private planes to spend federal funds on parking lots and hangars, and by guaranteeing those airports money every year. Parking lot upgrades score between 16 and 19 on the FAA's 100-point scale that gives the highest numbers to safety projects. Installing runway lights scores between 77 and 97. Projects scoring under 41 are considered low priority and get extra FAA scrutiny.

Money for projects such as hangars "could likely be better used on higher-priority projects like airspace modernization," said David Castelveter of the Air Transport Association, the airline trade group. "That would allow more flights and would reduce delay."

The FAA defends the spending. "They're all good projects," said Catherine Lang, FAA acting associate administrator for airports. The rating system is only one factor the FAA considers for grants it issues. Other factors: local priorities, environmental issues and an airport's growth.

Former Transportation Department inspector general Kenneth Mead said the FAA "ought to revise their rating system" to include all factors it considers. "The system should be transparent," he said.

The ratings are not used to evaluate projects airports fund with annual entitlement grants, which they can spend on any project federal law allows. Most low-priority projects used entitlement funds.

Todd Hauptli of the American Association of Airport Executives said low-rated projects may be vital to an airport: "National priority and local priority are just two different animals."

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