Terminal Illness

Twenty minutes from downtown, the $300 million MidAmerica Airport is ready and waiting for business -- any business. Trouble is, Lambert is killing its chances of attracting commercial traffic.

Driving east on Interstate 64 from downtown St. Louis, there's a sudden drop in traffic just past the empty factories and stockyards bordering East St. Louis. Beyond that lie the horseradish fields of Collinsville and the weathered river bluffs of Fairview Heights. From that point on, all the way to Scott Air Force Base, all you see are a few distant churches, some fencing, and silos and cornfields as far as you care to look.

And then you see it. From the highway at night, it looks like something big, like a shopping mall or a sports arena or a modern museum at the height of architectural fashion. Surrounded by regiments of small, blinking lights, the two-story, glassed-in structure stands off in the rural Illinois darkness like an apocalyptic religious temple just waiting for something to happen.

Whatever it is, it looks closed. The parking lot is empty, the inside lights dim. No shoppers, no sports fans, no one inside, outside or anywhere around -- just the building, the parking lot and the small blinking lights. And as your car speeds by, you notice the modestly lit sign: "MidAmerica Airport."

MidAmerica Airport, built for $300 million on the fertile cornfields of Mascoutah last year, then sarcastically labeled "Mascoutah International" by a local newspaper, because it has attracted no commercial tenants.

MidAmerica Airport, constructed as a "reliever" for St. Louis Lambert International but labeled a waste of taxpayer money by St. Louis television reporters, because Bi-State buses arrive empty and leave empty a dozen scheduled times every day.

MidAmerica Airport, the butt of an NBC "Fleecing of America" segment some time back in which Tom Brokaw asked, "Where are the airplanes?" and then goaded his taxpaying audience into believing they'd been defrauded of millions of dollars. Local residents still recall that one with a mixture of embarrassment and pride -- their three-minute claim to national fame, MidAmerica Airport.

It's easy on the surface for folks in St. Clair County to assume the airport is classic pork that provided lucrative headlines for the politicians who created it and patronage jobs for their pals. After all, one of the earliest proponents of expanding Scott Air Force Base to include civilian use came back in 1985 from former U.S. Congressman Kenneth Gray (D-New Frankfort), dubbed the "Prince of Pork" for the billions in questionable public-works projects he brought to his Southern Illinois district.

And, at least from the highway, it looks that way. There are no commercial airplanes on the runways, no cars in the parking lot and no Ramada Inn shuttles fighting taxis for a stand.

Letters to the editor of the county's largest daily newspaper, the Belleville News-Democrat, attest to increasing skepticism on the part of local residents: "How stupid do our local airport managers think the local taxpayers are?" asks one writer.

But the story of MidAmerica Airport, at least the one behind all the soundbites of cynicism, is the story of a victim, not a white elephant. MidAmerica was a well-conceived, well-planned, common-sense airport, designed to feed off the Air Force base's needs and, at the same time, provide a commercial reliever airport to landlocked Lambert.

But things went awry when, several years into MidAmerica's construction, its civilian use got hijacked by Lambert. Backed by powerful political interests, Lambert pushed ahead with its $2.6 billion expansion plan, which included no need for a second airport. The Lambert lobby was strong enough that the same agency that chipped in $154 million for MidAmerica to relieve Lambert's congestion -- the Federal Aviation Administration -- turned around and stated in its approval of Lambert's expansion that a second airport was not a viable alternative.

With the agency's approval of that plan last month, MidAmerica became Lambert's casualty.

MidAmerica's passenger terminal rises up on its 4,400-acre empty bed of land like an enigma in quarantine. But inside, the airport's director, Floyd "Rick" Hargrove, surveys the stage -- the empty terminal and the runways and parking lots outside -- as though making last-minute checks before opening night.

Hargrove, who spent 30 years in the U.S. Air Force as a cargo pilot and retired as a brigadier general, later worked as the deputy director at Lambert from 1989-94. Now, as MidAmerica's narrator, Hargrove weaves his airport's story with the jargon of a technical manual, quoting every tonnage, weight limit and square-foot capacity his audience cares to ask about.

The airport's 10,000-foot runway, for instance, is 4 feet thick, layered with 2 feet of compacted gravel, 7 inches of asphalt and 17 inches of reinforced concrete. It was designed to hold a 1.2-million pound aircraft, he explains, even though the largest carrier in existence today is the Boeing 747-400, which weighs precisely 877,000 pounds.

But this is an airport with an eye to the future, he adds, pointing out that Boeing's 747-600X, now in production, will weigh in at 1.2 million pounds or more. "There's enough concrete here to pave a 4-foot-wide bike trail, 6 inches thick, from Illinois all the way to California," he says.

Later, he notes that in constructing the entire complex -- including the passenger terminal (50,000 square feet, able to handle 400,000 passengers a year), the fuel farm (eight 30,000-gallon tanks and one 15,000-gallon tank) and the public-safety building (housing two fire trucks that hold 3,000 gallons of firefighting foam and cost $500,000 apiece) -- enough dirt was moved to fill both the Pentagon and the Trans World Dome completely.

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