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Regional leaders float idea to buy Lambert from St. Louis

Regional leaders float idea to buy Lambert from St. Louis

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St. Louis Lambert International Airport gears up for holiday travelers

Travelers at St. Louis Lambert International Airport on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — County and municipal leaders in St. Louis, St. Charles and Jefferson counties are looking at the possibility of buying St. Louis Lambert International Airport from the city and putting it under the control of a regional board.

The heads of some of the region’s largest governments have discussed a massive special sales taxing district spanning St. Louis, St. Charles, Jefferson and even Franklin counties, the Post-Dispatch has learned.

If voters in those jurisdictions approved it, a half-cent sales tax could generate some $80 million to $100 million annually — money that could be used to acquire the airport from St. Louis, much as a private operator would have done under a long-term lease contemplated during the recently aborted privatization process.

“We have talked to St. Louis (County and) St. Charles (County) and the issue’s been brought up to Jefferson County,” said Bridgeton Mayor Terry Briggs, who has pitched the idea and discussed it with other area mayors and county leaders.

“Nobody just laughed and said, ‘Get out — that’s the craziest idea I’ve ever heard.’ They’re intrigued by it.”

Briggs, whose city lost a chunk of its population when Lambert’s newest runway was built 15 years ago, said the idea started being discussed in the last couple of months, mainly within an informal group known as the “Metro Mayors” that serves as a forum for leaders of area municipalities with over 10,000 residents.

He said he’s met with St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann about the proposal, and had an informal meeting with Jefferson County Executive Dennis Gannon.

“I’ve met with all those people, too, and they are all interested in a long-term solution to this thing,” Ehlmann said in an interview. “They were all concerned about privatization, just fear of the unknown as much as anything. There’s a good group of leaders in those counties now that hopefully we can sit down with the city and work something out.”

Ehlmann, who advocated for regional control of Lambert in the late ’90s when he was a state legislator, said he welcomes the discussion and doesn’t want to wait “until there’s another crisis” to figure out how to attract more flights and improve the airport.

“The only problem of it is what is the value of the airport,” Ehlmann said. “Any attempt to do something like this, that’s going to be the sticking point. … Nobody would suggest the city shouldn’t get a decent return on the money they invested.”

Discussions among area leaders about regional governance were spurred in part by privatization talks led by the city that kicked into high gear with the release of a request for qualifications from potential bidders in October.

Facing sustained criticism of airport privatization from elected officials in the city, including Comptroller Darlene Green and several aldermen, as well as concern expressed privately by some business leaders, Mayor Lyda Krewson announced on Dec. 20 she was ending efforts to identify a potential private operator.

Meanwhile, talks among regional leaders over a new way to govern the airport and compensate the city continue. Briggs and others, including Ehlmann, have pointed out that Lambert is funded by user fees and most of the users come from beyond the boundaries of a city with just 12% or so of the regional population.

“It blends right into the whole thing about regionalism,” Briggs said. “This is an asset we all enjoy using and maybe it’s time all of us had some say-so in how it’s run and operated.”

Earlier this month, the St. Louis County Port Authority voted to issue a request for proposals for an airport study that would examine, among other things, regional governance of Lambert.

Page’s spokesman, Doug Moore, signaled the idea was still in the early stages.

“It’s hard to speculate about how such an idea might work without first engaging St. Louis city leaders, the business community and the public in the conversation,” he said in a statement.

Briggs said he and others have looked at the Transportation Development District statute and concluded that one of the districts — usually set up by private property owners to fund traffic infrastructure around retail developments — could be set up across county lines. The money generated from a sales tax could be used to issue bonds to pay the city, pay down the airport’s nearly $600 million in debt or invest in capital improvements.

“As long as it’s related to transportation, which the airport would be, then it is permissible to do,” Briggs said. “A sales tax increase, which is what the TDD does, could be voted on by the residents of the surrounding four or five counties, whoever wants to participate, under the condition that you pay the city ‘X’ amount of dollars, whatever the value is.”

The plan would not put a TDD tax on the city of St. Louis since the rest of the region would essentially be paying the city for its asset, Briggs said.

Briggs said proponents of the plan have yet to approach Krewson about the proposal, and he still needs to speak to Franklin County Presiding Commissioner Tim Brinker. Nor has he spoken to leaders in the Metro East because it’s unclear how Missouri’s TDD law could interact with Illinois special taxing district laws.

Krewson’s spokesman, Jacob Long, said the mayor’s office was not invited to be part of the conversation on regional governance.

“It would be highly speculative for us to offer any sort of reaction because they haven’t asked us to be part of the conversation,” Long said.

With reports that leaders of two of the region’s prominent business groups — Civic Progress and the Regional Business Council — were also concerned about the city’s privatization process, Briggs said he plans to soon meet with them.

“I think even the corporate people in town, and the business and civic communities might say you know that’s not a bad idea,” Briggs said.

“One of our issues now is to try and start having meetings with people and find out if this is realistic. But you know, the city’s the one we’ve got to go and talk to. It’s been their asset.”

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