You’ll remember the ironically-named Essential Air Service program from the FAA extension debate. The $200 million program was one of two issues on which Senate Democrats refused to budge, opting to suspend infrastructure spending and revenue generation rather than to let Republicans cut subsidies for 13 airports. Finally a compromise was struck under which Republicans would formally eliminate the program — because Senate Democrats couldn’t really defend paying for empty planes to fly into empty rural airports — but Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood would be allowed to very quietly waive the cuts. Guess how that went.

The Associated Press followed up on the story today, using the town of Ely, Nevada as an illustration. There are plenty of days when the airport gets planes with exactly zero passengers, and across the entire year flights average 1 or 2 passengers per flight. Last year exactly 227 passengers departed from the Ely airport terminals, with each passenger paying between $70 and $90 for their heavily-subsidized one-way tickets. The difference between the full price and what each passenger paid was left for taxpayers to pick up. Average price per ticket: $4,107.

The article goes on to quote Prof. Severin Borenstein of the University of California, Berkeley, who helped design EAS and who now thinks that there is a “big problem” with giving subsidies to airports like Ely. That’s one way of putting it.

Defenders of the program insist that, actually, the government funds transportation projects that are even more expensive and even more wasteful. They also emphasize that the subsidized airports boost communities that would otherwise not see activity on account of broad public disinterest. That’s the level of debate we’ve reached. The argument against cutting pork out of the budget is that there’s pork in the budget, and we justify sending money to communities because they’re demographically unsustainable.

You kind of have to admire the shamelessness involved. If these airports weren’t in the states of powerful senators they wouldn’t exist, and everyone kind of knows that. But at some point we really will have to stop letting politicians say things that obviously don’t make sense just because they like spending taxpayer money.

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