Along a country road in southern Oklahoma, there is a place that doesn’t make sense. It is an airport without passengers.
Or, for that matter, planes.
This is Lake Murray State Park Airport, one of the least busy of the nation’s 3,300-plus public airfields. In an entire week here, there might be one landing and one takeoff — often so pilots can use the bathroom. Or none at all. Visiting pilots are warned to watch out for deer on the runway.
So why is it still open? Mostly, because the U.S. government insists on sending it money.
Every year, Oklahoma is allotted $150,000 in federal funding because of this place, the result of a grant program established 13 years ago, in Congress’s golden age of pork. The same amount goes to hundreds of other tiny airfields across the country — including more than 80 like this one, with no paying customers and no planes based at the field.
Lake Murray, as it turns out, is an ATM shaped like an airport.
It’s also an example of the kind of spending — wide-ranging, constituent-pleasing giveaways — that Washington has struggled to swear off in this time of austerity. Once again, for example, Congress voted to continue giving money to local airports last year. And in Oklahoma, state officials voted to keep the airport open and, therefore, be able to take it.
“This is a direct gift from your congressman and senators,” said Victor Bird, director of the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission, which handles the money the government allots for Lake Murray. “Everybody’s going to get something here, and we’re going to take some.”
For advocates of leaner government, the story of Lake Murray’s airport is particularly galling now, as an $85 billion budget cut nears on Friday. The “sequester,” as the cut is known, is what lawmakers call a “dumb cut,” because it doesn’t try to distinguish muscle from fat.
Within the Federal Aviation Administration, for instance, officials say the sequester could result in the closure of air-traffic control towers and long flight delays. But it would not touch the airport program, which has allotted Lake Murray about $1,500 for each of its takeoffs and landings.
“Why have we not gotten rid of the stupid stuff in the federal government?” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who highlighted Lake Murray in his annual “Wastebook” last year. “Because every one of these … stupid or irresponsible projects has a constituency.”
The story of Lake Murray’s airfield starts in the early 1960s. At that point, Congress was not involved: The airport was intended to function as an airport. The state parks department hoped the field would draw high-rolling visitors with their own planes.
At first, they came. Now, they generally don’t.
“There’s an airplane!” Wesley Chaney, the state park’s head golf pro, said one afternoon this month. At that moment, this was surprising — and worrying — news. Chaney was standing smack in the middle of the runway.
“That’s a bird,” Richard Keithley, another parks employee, told him.
There was no plane coming. In the wide blue Oklahoma sky, in fact, the only things aloft were jumbo jets passing at high altitude and a few circling buzzards.
That’s typical here. There are other, better airports nearby, and Lake Murray is a primitive field. No control tower. No runway lights. No staff to monitor it. So what makes people visit?
Occasionally, golf. More often, bladders.
“Sometimes, they’ll come in here and use the restroom, and fly right back home,” Chaney said. “Just making a pit stop,” the pilots say as they exit the pro shop.
Still, according to state records, the U.S. government has allotted the airport at least $900,000 since 2007.
That’s because of a bill Congress passed in 2000 that created a new “entitlement” program for small airports. The rules: If a field was on the FAA’s official airports list, and if it had sufficient need for infrastructure improvements, there would be money. Up to $150,000, every year.
The money was paid out of a “trust fund” filled by taxes on airline tickets and airplane fuel.
On Capitol Hill, this looked like a master stroke of pork politics, engineered by then-House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bud Shuster, R-Pa. His measure carpet-bombed congressional districts with money. In the Senate, the bill won by 65 votes. In the House, it won by 218. (Shuster retired in 2001. He did not return a call for comment about the legislation).
Out in the real world, however, there were problems.
Little airports such as this “need a grant every now and then. Not necessarily every year,” said an FAA official who discussed the program’s flaws on the condition of anonymity. “Now, we have a system that gives ‘em all a little money, every year.”
To make the system more flexible, Congress changed the rules. With FAA permission, states could transfer money from one airport to another.
In 2008, for instance, the government gave Oklahoma $150,000 to make improvements at Lake Murray. The state spent about $5,500 of that on Lake Murray. The rest went to a build a terminal at a busier airport in Duncan.
And that turned out to be a good year for Lake Murray. Since then, it hasn’t seen a dime.
In 2009, its money was split between bigger airports in Muskogee and Ardmore. In the three years since then, Oklahoma has simply banked Lake Murray’s entitlement, storing up $450,000.
In the years since 2000, pork has gone far out of fashion in American politics. But this program has remained strikingly difficult for anyone — from Washington to Oklahoma City — to kill.
President George W. Bush, more than once, proposed budget cuts that would have ended the program. In 2011, Coburn suggested making states share more of the costs. Instead, last February, Congress kept the program in place when it reauthorized the FAA.
Budget watchdog groups say these airport entitlements are in a league with the Essential Air Service program — which subsidizes commercial flights to small places — and Amtrak. Their services are spread wide enough to give them a strong base in Congress.
So they continue.
“This is such a perfect example of a program designed to live forever,” said Erich Zimmermann of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. “I mean, how do you ever get rid of this program?”
In Oklahoma, as it turns out, even getting rid of a single airport is hard.
“We’re volunteering to save the government money,” said a frustrated Deby Snodgrass, who oversees the state tourism and recreation department. “At a time when I think they need it.”
The parks department does the day-to-day work at Lake Murray. It mows the grass around the 2,500-foot runway. Weed-whacks its endless edges. Sprays Roundup on the weeds that poke up. That adds up to $750,000 a year in maintenance, which the federal money doesn’t cover.
Last year, the parks department asked the aeronautics commission to close the field.
It just didn’t get it.
“We have been using it as a source of revenue,” Bird told the commissioners during their meeting, according to an audio recording. In all, he estimated, Lake Murray had brought Oklahoma more than $1 million for other projects over the years. “We will lose that. We will lose that opportunity. Because it will no longer receive — or be eligible to receive — the $150,000 grant,” Bird said.
He also raised the worry that Oklahoma might have to pay back the fraction of that federal money it had spent at Lake Murray, about $184,000. And, he said, the FAA might eventually close the place on its own: The agency is in the middle of a study of this and 496 other small airports, asking how idle is too idle to get the cash.
The vote was 6-0 against.
At Lake Murray, nothing has changed. On one recent day, afternoon sunshine turned to shadows, which turned to hard dark. The deer came out.
“They get the money. And then they don’t spend it?” said Keithley, the parks employee, who was standing by the runway and trying to make sense of what he’d just learned. He worked at Lake Murray, but he didn’t understand how the place really worked.
Yes, he was told. The airport brings in money, which gets spent at other places. “Oh, goodness,” Keithley said, putting it together. He was amused at first, one government employee applauding the ingenuity of others.
But then he thought about all the afternoons he’d spent in the Oklahoma sun, maintaining an airfield that was meant to attract money, not planes.
“There’s part of it,” he said, “I don’t find as funny.”