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Tiny Airport Scored $7.5 Million in Federal Funds

The Pellston Regional Airport in northern Michigan had two advantages when local officials planned a new terminal in 2001: a grand vision and lots of federal money.

"We designed a terminal building that was - I don't want to say gold-plated - but we designed what we'd like to see in a perfect world," airport manager Kelley Atkins said. "There was very little that was taken out of the original plan."

The result is a 34,500-square-foot, lodge-style building with three stone fireplaces, ticket counters with stone facade and exposed log beams decorating the business center, observation deck and lounge with picture windows.

Federal taxpayers paid $7.5 million for the terminal, which the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rated a low priority, in part because it has few flights. The airport averages 72 departing passengers a day.

Nonetheless, "the FAA was real positive toward the project," Atkins said. Emmet County, Mich., which owns the airport, paid $475,000 of the $8.4 million cost. The state paid the rest.

Pellston is one of 374 airports that have spent $1.3 billion in federal money on low-priority terminal projects since 1998, a USA TODAY analysis shows. Including such things as parking lots, hangars and fencing, airports have spent a total of $3.5 billion on 5,700 low-priority projects.

The FAA uses a 100-point scale rating system to determine low and high priority projects. Other low-priority terminal projects:

- Lake Cumberland Regional Airport in Kentucky got $3.5 million to build a glass-fronted terminal in 2004 that was largely unused until the first passenger flights began this June. The airport now has six flights a week.

- Montgomery Regional Airport in Alabama got $22 million to build a $35 million terminal with a sloping glass facade and a rotunda topped with a domed ceiling that reflects the historical architecture of the state capitol.

- Halliburton Field Airport in Duncan, Okla., got $700,000 for a terminal with a pilot room and a reception room. The airport, open only to private planes, has 24 landings and takeoffs a day, mostly local pilots in piston-engine planes.

"It's a pretty good airport for the town," said Mayor Gene Brown of Duncan, which owns the airport.

Critics assail using federal funds on any low-priority project.

"A stone fireplace is not cheap," said Tom Schatz of Citizens Against Government Waste. "Given our current economic circumstances and $1.4 trillion deficit, you should really only be looking at high priorities."

Airport officials and the FAA defend spending on projects, noting that they represent 10% of the federal grant money airports spend.

Idaho's Pocatello Regional Airport spent $7 million of its $18 million in federal funds on low-priority projects since 1998, records show. That includes $1.6 million in 2006-07 to renovate the deteriorating parking lot that is free of charge.

"A parking lot is probably the lowest-priority project eligible, even below the terminal," airport manager David Allen said. "The fact that we did not have other projects that were essential at that time made it a good use of those funds."

Catherine Lang, FAA's acting associate administrator for airports, said the agency has a "national initiative" to upgrade terminals at small airports. "They're crumbling, loaded with asbestos and have no other source" of money, Lang said.

The 3,000 airports that cater to private planes raise little if any money from sources that are lucrative at commercial airports, such as passenger taxes and rents for terminal tenants.

"A very important part of the FAA's mission is to support community airports," said Craig Fuller, CEO of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a private-aviation trade group.

Atkins of the Pellston airport hoped the new terminal would attract more passengers and flights. But since 2004, after the terminal opened, the number of departures has dropped 22%. Departing passengers have fallen 32%, federal records show.

Atkins cites the weak economy and the merger of Northwest and Delta airlines, but says the terminal is popular. Two couples held weddings there.

"We wanted to build something very special and unique, so we went after it," Atkins said. "It's every airport's job to get as much as it can for itself."

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