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Planes, trains and automobiles all want our cash: How should we decide?

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Leininger on WOWO

Columnist Kevin Leininger will appear with guest host Steve Shine on WOWO radio, 1190 AM and 92.3 FM, at 6:38 a.m. Wednesday.

$600,000 in Legacy asked for air service with $250,000 pending for rail study

Tuesday, February 11, 2014 - 8:40 am

Advocates of bringing high-speed rail service to Fort Wayne say the city and county should contribute a combined $250,000 to the planning effort because the proposed line between Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, could attract 2.1 million riders by 2020.

But with Fort Wayne International Airport already serving 600,000 real passengers every year, City Council on Tuesday will consider a resolution that would see the city contribute up to $600,000 toward an effort to link Fort Wayne International to a still-undetermined Northeast hub. And so the question naturally arises, or should:

With a limited amount of money to spend, should this community make piecemeal decisions about its future transportation needs? Or is a more coordinated and comprehensive approach called for?

“I want to put off a decision (on the funding request from the Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association). We need to set our (transportation) priorities,” said City Councilman Tom Smith, R-1st, who doesn't want support for theoretical rail demand to limit local government's ability to support more immediate transportation needs in the air or elsewhere should it choose to do so.

Scott Hinderman, executive director of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority, said the organization recently won a $600,000 federal grant to improve air service but must match that with $1.4 million in local funds. Tuesday's resolution states that link to a Northeast hub "is essential to the economic vitality of northeast Indiana" and would guarantee "a certain level of revenue from a newly established route over (two years) . . . only if the revenues . . . underperform."

The service is expected to ultimately be self-sustaining, the ordinance adds. Other area governments and agencies, including Allen County, the Indiana Economic Development Corp. and the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership have also been asked to contribute.

The city's $71 million Legacy fund, created by the sale of the former City Light utility, is the suggested source of funds, which would require the support of six of council's nine members. But council has already balked at tapping Legacy for the $200,000 needed for the rail study, and it's questionable whether new air service would be viewed as "transformation" enough to meet the fund's guidelines.

But at this point the source of the funds is less important than that the money, if it comes, be spent wisely,

As I noted in 2007, the airport had hosted at least three major economic-development setbacks despite the investment of millions of public dollars. Burlington Air Express was lured here with a $37 million package but operated for only a few years before flying off to Toledo, Ohio, in 1990. Another air cargo firm, Dallas-based Kitty Hawk, was attracted in 1999 with the help of $33 million in incentives but left after eight years. And in 2004, the low-cost airline ATA Connection got $2.4 million in incentives to begin service between Fort Wayne and Chicago – then went bankrupt, allowing the airport to collect less than 1 percent of the $563,000 ATA owed because it had not operated at least one year as required by contract.

Because they so clearly indicate the volatility of the transportation industry in general, those setbacks should serve as examples of what the community should avoid as it moves forward.

Hinderman, who was not in charge when the previous deals were made, said they should not be viewed as failures, and he has a point: The 12,000-foot runway built for Burlington is still here, benefiting the Air National Guard and other carriers. The Kitty Hawk facility, vacant for years, has found new tenants. And even though ATA's operation here was brief, the competition it provided lowered local fares by an estimated total of $4 million, and its success in the market helped attract Allegiant, which is still here.

In part, the lesson seems to have been learned. The airport foolishly gave ATA $1.5 million up front, but Hinderman said a new carrier – and discussions are underway with several – will not receive a similar deal.

City spokesman John Perlich said the administration of Mayor Tom Henry supports the resolution because it is "a tremendous economic development opportunity for our region . . . consistent with our commitment to job growth job retention and quality of life." And no doubt better air service would be all of those things. It is also good that the private sector will be asked to contribute, as it should be for the rail study.

The details of such a deal can wait. For now, with two large transportation requests already on the table and more likely to come, the community should begin a discussion about how much money will be needed, its source, how best to protect the investment and maximize the return, and whether planes, trains, automobiles or even something else should be priority No. 1.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.