Stevens vows to fight cuts to essential air service

Posted: Wednesday, March 12, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) The Bush administration wants to cut the cost of subsidizing air service to small towns in Alaska and elsewhere by making the towns put up some of the money.

In Alaska, the administration wants most communities served by the essential air service'' program to put up 10 percent.

Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens told a federal official at a hearing Tuesday that he would oppose the action.

Thirty-three Alaska communities and 92 elsewhere across the nation have air service subsidized under the program.

Stevens said most communities benefit from federal road and railroad money, but many Alaska communities are off the road network and don't see such money, he said. The air service program helps even that inequity. Also, he said, some of the Alaska communities are surrounded by federal conservation lands over which no roads will ever be built.

Why should those communities contribute at all?'' Stevens asked Read Van de Water, assistant Transportation secretary for aviation and international affairs.

We are asking for a 10 percent contribution from those communities, recognizing that there is no highway connection for most of them,'' Van de Water said.

Towns elsewhere in the country are asked to pay 25 percent, she said. Bill Mosely, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C., said the matching money wouldn't have to come from any particular source.

It could be local government, state government or private sources potentially,'' he said.

Well why do you want any contribution at all?'' Stevens asked Van de Water at the Senate Commerce Committee hearing. Would you like to build the roads out there? They cost about $2 million a mile.''

No senator,'' she replied, but we do have a very tough financial situation.''

Under current law, the agency is required by Congress to accept new towns for subsidies if they meet certain criteria. The program guarantees communities air service if they had it in 1978 when the airline industry was deregulated.

About 25 new towns came into the program last year and another 85 are currently served by only one carrier, Van de Water said.

They could file today and my office would be responsible for paying the carrier for staying in, and we don't have the funds to do it,'' Van de Water said.

The program cost $113 million nationwide last year, of which $7 million was spent in Alaska. The Bush administration's budget proposes to cut back the federal cost to $50 million.

The Government Accounting Office, the investigatory arm of Congress, issued a report Tuesday that said demands for government subsidies of air service to small towns is heavy and may increase as airlines reduce service to communities.''

Essential air service program costs have tripled since 1995, the GAO said, even while fewer passengers are using the services.

Most choose to drive to their destination or to fly to and from another nearby airport with more service or lower fares,'' the report summary said.

Stevens said it makes no sense to be subsidizing flights into places that have road access while asking for money from those that have none. But Van de Water said road access is not part of the current criteria used to judge whether a community receives a subsidy.

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