News Story

Why Is Michigan In The Airport Business?

Lawmaker asking questions but not finding answers

The Michigan Department of Transportation owns four relatively small and inconsequential airports.

And state Rep. Matt Maddock, R-Milford, would like to know why.

“It doesn’t make sense. I understand that once they are in our hands, we have to deal with them,” Maddock said. “But I can’t get straight answers (from the Michigan Department of Transportation) about what the costs are.”

Maddock is the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation. In the budget adopted by the House earlier this year, he included a provision directing MDOT to analyze the feasibility of unloading the airports, which are located in Canton, Houghton Lake, Linden and Romeo. The proposal was part of the broader, unresolved, discussion over how to bridge the gap between Michigan’s need for more road construction and repair funding and the means to pay for it.

The House also directed the department to consider selling off the state’s interest in the Blue Water Bridge and privatizing its highway welcome centers.

Of the airports, Maddock says he simply wants to know why the state’s road department is running airports.

The answer is not entirely clear. The state acquired the airports in Canton, Linden and Romeo from private owners. The acquisitions, which took place between 1995-2001, were ostensibly to sustain the airports’ contribution to the state’s and nation’s air travel infrastructure.

With more than 200 airports in Michigan available for public use, Maddock said he is not convinced that state ownership of the four is critical. One of the them, Linden’s Price’s Airport, largely serves the needs of a group of people who own homes with attached hangars, adjacent to the state-owned runway.

But MDOT officials say that airport ownership is a cost-free proposition for state taxpayers. MDOT spokesman Jeff Cranson said in an email the airfields “are each viable airports with $0 in MDOT Aeronautics' funds being put into them.”

Further, Cranson said, two of the airports — Canton’s Mettetal and the Romeo State Airport — have received federal aviation funds for capital improvements. Selling those facilities could trigger a requirement the state repay as much as $10 million, he said.

The only option that would avoid federal penalties, at least for Romeo and Canton, would be to find another public entity willing to make the purchase, Cranson said. Canton Township Supervisor Pat Williams said his township is not interested. MDOT has approached the township about acquiring Mettetal repeatedly, he said, but “we don’t want to take that on.” Williams said Mettetal serves the interests of both local business and recreational flyers, “but we have no interest in having Canton Township subsidize” an airport.

Ironically, state officials have long been skeptical about airport ownership as well. In 2012, former state Aeronautics Administrator Mike Trout said “the state would rather not own airports.”

It appears the state can acquire airports from private owners, but it can’t reverse the transaction.

James Hohman, director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said operating the airports without annual subsides is laudable, but “these are private purposes that can be provided by the private sector without the state needing to get involved.”