Civic groups must act now to strengthen airport's vitality
By Michael Lewis
Four key issues in Miami-Dade require rapid action. Three - urban transportation, public education and affordable housing - are getting it. That leaves the fourth horseman of the apocalypse, Miami International Airport.
In June 2004, the Miami Business Forum, to shield efforts for a $2.8 billion county bond issue, "temporarily" withdrew a bid to create an independent authority to control our airports. The bond issue passed that autumn.
Fine. But what has happened to the forum's efforts to create an aviation authority?
Not a peep. The drive went away. But the need intensified.
The county commission pays scant heed to the crisis now battering Miami International Airport. As long as commissioners can keep a thumb on huge contracts - and the airport is growing by $5 billion - crying needs get lost.
The airport now serves fewer fliers than when it decided to expand to add 20 million a year. We're overbuilding.
The bill goes to troubled airlines, which then shift to Hollywood-Fort Lauderdale at far lower cost. That further reduces need at a still higher cost per passenger - the start of a death spiral.
Add the crunch that an auditor found. The airport's $31.4 million yearly repayment to the county is the nation's second-highest per passenger - and that doesn't count police, fire and utilities costs. And airport payroll per passenger is the largest in the US.
Federal officials questioned more than $40 million in airport payments to the county and forced the county to give back $11 million.
Other problems include wasteful contracts, lobbyist influence, quality of services and facilities and expansion oversight. To be fair, some are under repair.
Still, couple massive building with falling demand and an industry-wide tailspin, throw in poor quality and government pigging out at the trough and you'd have ample reason to put airports into independent hands even if we were to assume that all county commissioners and administrators were 100% honest and knowledgeable.
Airport governance is for a single-minded group not overwhelmed by ground transportation, land use, resource preservation, health and welfare and dozens of tasks our commission oversees. Thirteen paragons of virtue named Einstein couldn't do it all well.
But why, commissioners ask, do we think an authority would be any more honest or intelligent than they are?
They're right. There's no guarantee of honesty or intellect. Authority members might be no sharper than our commission - a chilling thought. But they'd focus on only one chore rather than dozens, and single-minded focus is what's needed to preserve Miami's economic engine.
The Miami Business Forum knows that as well as anyone. Undoubtedly, the forum will resurface now that the fall 2004 election is over and follow through on the issue that it so forcefully identified - a need that grows daily.
If the forum remains in hiding, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce must pick up the task at its May goals conference and get the issue before voters immediately.
Nothing associated with the word "commerce" is more vital than getting our airport out of politics and into hands of focused experts.