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The public and Lambert airport's privatization

Passengers await ground transportation at St. Louis Lambert International Airport in February.

Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

Almost five years ago, I wrote an op-ed for this page that called out the city’s political leadership for failure to address the problem of its deteriorating airport and a corresponding decline in air service. At the time, leaders were focused on a misbegotten attempt to keep the Rams in St. Louis and on launching a $52 million trolley that has so far provided only comic relief. So much for sound priorities.

In the meantime, St. Louis Lambert International Airport has staged a comeback. Under the able management of Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge and her staff, it has shown marked improvement both in appearance and performance. Statistics show a 25% increase in passenger enplanements since 2015, ranking Lambert among the top 10 venues in airport growth nationwide.

The concessions marketing group has attracted a variety of service providers, specialty shops, restaurants and bars, giving Terminal 2 a whole new vibe, no longer reminiscent of a scene from “On The Beach.” More importantly, airport management has met or surpassed most of the benchmarks laid out in its five-year strategic plan that measures airline service growth, community engagement, financial outlooks and economic impact.

Given these positive trends, it’s difficult to understand who or what is driving the stampede to privatize. It’s certainly not a grassroots movement, unless the lawn is inhabited by a billionaire investment guru and a raft of former city officials now working as highly paid lobbyists for his agenda.

Nor is it a record of success elsewhere. Not a single U.S. airport has privatized. In Chicago, acknowledged to be especially hospitable to privatization, it was rejected not once but twice as proposed for Midway. Even cities in dire financial straits, such as Detroit, have shown no interest. An ongoing partial privatization project in Denver is a disaster. It is being tried in San Juan, Puerto Rico, only because the governor admitted they had no other options, and the jury is still out.

But the truth is that this initiative is not about privatization; it’s about monetization. The City of St. Louis is in desperate need of funds to service its debt and deal with pressing infrastructure issues, to say nothing of public safety demands. As by far the city’s most valuable asset, Lambert is virtually the only source likely to produce those funds. Enter privatization.

In a possibly unintended but candid description of the goal of privatization, Adolphus Pruitt, president of the city chapter of the NAACP, said the “deal” could serve to improve the overall health and welfare of St. Louis’ underserved populations. A worthy objective to be sure, but not a valid rationale to shape the future governance and operation of Lambert.

The solution has to be regional. Lambert can’t continue to be owned and controlled by the city. An airport tax district, similar to the Zoo-Museum model, together with an expanded and rejuvenated Port Authority, might work.

Also, the recent appointment of a freshly constituted Board of Freeholders may offer a unique window to accomplish something major. In 1954, a freeholders board created the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, with the approval of voters in both St. Louis city and county — an unprecedented example of cooperation across local boundaries. Why not again?

It won’t be easy. The city’s ownership interest, although arguably anomalous, will have to be acknowledged and dealt with realistically. One possibility would be to syndicate a portion of ownership to surrounding counties, starting with St. Louis and St. Charles. The proceeds of syndication could be used to address some of the city’s financial issues previously mentioned.

In the same vein, the valuation process would be a challenge, given that many of the factors that resulted in appreciation of Lambert’s value have come from outside the city.

All of these challenges notwithstanding, the time is right to move in the direction of regional ownership and control. There is a growing consensus that regionalism in some form needs to be pursued. What better place to start than Lambert, which the denizens of our metro area regard as their own.

As for privatization, it warrants consideration, but only upon further study by objective experts, including a comparison with other studies. It’s also imperative that the shroud of secrecy be lifted and replaced by transparency in all respects. When Midway’s privatization effort collapsed in 2013, the Chicago Tribune observed that the process played out behind closed doors, including murky relationships between city officials and conflict-laden consultants and lobbyists, making it difficult to sort out what was going on.

Sound familiar?

Gerald Ortbals is a local attorney engaged primarily in mediation practice. He lives in St. Louis County.