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A Billion Dollar White Elephant and a Community Destroyed

I spent my childhood in a typical mid-west, middle-class neighborhood. American heartland; mom, apple pie and Chevrolet. Baseball, barbecues, bicycles, and Boy Scouts. It's hard to imagine a better place to grow up. But this is more than a story about a wonderful American neighborhood, it’s a story about egotism, greed and wasteful government spending.

"It's just gone."

If you look closely at the aerial view below, my childhood neighborhood, you'll notice something odd. There aren’t any houses, only the roads remain. The houses have been removed, completely. My first home is now gone, as are the homes of thousands of other people. My first school no longer exists. Our church is gone. Fields where I played baseball are gone. The pool where I learned to swim and spent countless summer days is abandoned and full of debris. What could be the reason for this incomprehensible destruction? That reason would be Lambert-St. Louis International Airport runway 11/29. A billion dollar (yes, that's billion with a "B") runway that displaced over 9,000 people and destroyed an entire neighborhood in Bridgeton, Missouri. The project required the relocation of seven major roads and the destruction of six churches, four schools and over 3,000 homes. And the worst part of the story, the runway wasn’t even needed.

Lambert-St. Louis International Airport runway 11/29 was conceived on the basis of traffic projections made in the 1980s and 1990s that warned of impending strains on the airport and the national air traffic system as a result of predicted growth in traffic at the airport. Construction began in 1998, and continued even after traffic at the airport declined dramatically following two events, one predictable and one unimaginable.

The Jet Age Arrives

Jets fly faster than prop driven aircraft, so they need longer runways to take off and land. Unlike Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Dallas, Cincinnati, Washington, DC and many other large cities around the globe that decided to build their larger "jet-age" airport in more open, less expensive areas away from existing development, St. Louis choose to expand its historic old airport. Originally called Lambert Field, known today as Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, the 1920s era, now intercity airport, dates back to aviation's beginnings. Imagine biplanes and Charles Lindbergh’s famous aircraft, the “Spirit of Saint Louis.” This may sound like an odd decision to reach until you realize it all came down to pride, politics, and of course, money. You see, there is inexpensive open space near downtown Saint Louis, unfortunately that open space happens to be just across the Mississippi River. For those unfamiliar with middle America geography, across the Mississippi river is a different state, the state of Illinois. Missouri residents and politicians in Saint Louis couldn't bear the thought of losing airport jobs, surrounding real estate development, substantial tax revenue, and pride in possessing an international airport to another city, much less to another state. The strategy used to keep the airport firmly planted in Missouri is easy to recognize, "We’ll spend so much money on Lambert Field they can never move the airport to Illinois.”

White Elephant - A valuable possession which its owner cannot dispose of and whose cost exceeds its usefulness.

Critics say Saint Louis chose a plan that cost far too much, displaced too many homeowners and delivered a poorly designed runway for airlines and controllers. In addition to providing superfluous extra capacity for flight operations at the airport, use of the runway is shunned by fuel-conscious pilots and airlines due to its distance from the terminals. Even one of the airport commissioners, John Krekeler, estimates that only 5% of flights at Lambert use the new runway. Krekeler says "several airlines," including Southwest, have requested not to land on the new runway because it is so far from the terminal. Planes must taxi up to three miles to the terminal and waste more fuel. It's the "standard policy of Southwest pilots to request landing on the older runways," says airline spokeswoman Beth Harbin. "Our preference is always to use the runway closest to the gate." "The runway is a white elephant and is not needed now," Krekeler says. "A ridiculous amount of money was spent for a 9,000-foot patch of concrete. It's asinine that it cost $1.1 billion, while it cost $315 million at MidAmerica for a passenger terminal and a runway." Krekeler is referring to MidAmerica Airport, an airport built from scratch in an undeveloped area in southern Illinois about 40 minutes from St. Louis.

The Predicable

Saint Louis airport expansion came as struggling Trans World Airlines (TWA) failed. TWA, using Saint Louis as both its primary hub and its headquarters, filed a third time for bankruptcy court protection in April, 2001. A day after the bankruptcy TWA agreed to sell its airline assets to American Airlines. American, who already had a large central U.S. hub near Dallas, didn’t need the airport in Saint Louis. Predictably, American Airlines immediately cut the number of Saint Louis flights in half. And further reducing passenger traffic, American Airlines began flying the St. Louis routes with smaller, less expensive regional jets which carry far fewer passengers. Most of the Saint Louis airport passenger traffic moved with American Airlines to DFW, one of the newer jet-age airports, and the number of passengers and flights using Lambert-St. Louis International Airport plunged.

The Unimaginable

After the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 and nationwide recession that followed, the traffic at airports across the country declined sharply. This only compounded Lambert’s trouble reducing traffic even further. Without a major airline using Saint Louis as a hub, return of passenger traffic came even slower than to other large airports. Krekeler, who joined the board of commissioners in 2000 when a new seat was added, says he proposed immediately after the September 11 attack to halt runway construction. Most of the money had not yet been spent. But building the runway created jobs, and the other airport officials, with hopes that Lambert would recover and grow in the future, decided to move forward, Krekeler says. And of course, they couldn't allow the airport to be moved to Illinois.

A "poor decision" indeed.

In terms of passengers boarding U.S. airlines, Lambert ranked as the eighth-busiest U.S. airport in 1998 (measured in flights) but fell dramatically to number 32 on that list in 2005, according to U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Passenger flights dropped 48% between approval of the runway project in 1998 and last year, according to data from Back Aviation Solutions, a consulting company. It appears the actual traffic decline in Saint Louis may be even worse, the number of flights falling by more than 55%. “Air traffic controllers are handling about 900 fewer flights daily than before American Airlines took over TWA's assets,” says Brad Rosenthal, president of the St. Louis chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union. “Controllers now handle about 700 flights per day,” he says. Bill Otto, former president of the local controllers' union, who worked at the FAA's regional air traffic control facility and whose house the city demolished to build the runway, said expansion of the airport was vital, but, in hindsight, "It looks like a very poor decision."

My Part Of The Story

I moved away from Saint Louis over 30 years ago to start my life and career. After my father’s death, my mother moved away from Saint Louis as well. I’ve had no reason to visit since then. On a cold, rainy November afternoon I returned to Saint Louis on a business trip. Before going on to my hotel downtown for the night, I asked the taxi driver to take me to the neighborhood where I lived as a boy. I knew the story of runway 11/29 and that the homes were gone. I thought I knew what to expect. I thought I was prepared.

"You can't go back home..."

I guess the disappointment, and a deep sadness were unavoidable. Under the gray clouds and falling rain the taxi entered Carrollton, the community in Bridgeton erased by the unnecessary runway expansion. My memories were rattled by disjointed glimpses of the familiar next to the incomprehensible. I directed the taxi driver past the classic mid-century Carrollton entrance, and a left turn on the now nameless Woodford Way where we climbed a hill under majestic trees. The trees are larger now. All the street signs had been removed but the way home is well rehearsed and not easily forgotten. I remembered homes, schools, churches and families. Where I remembered life, neighbors talking, people laughing and children playing in the yards, there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. The streets were now empty, no other cars, not another soul was in sight. We quickly found the street where my brother and I grew up. A road block prevented the taxi’s entry, “NO TRESPASSING” a sign warned. I asked the driver to wait while I walked the street looking for something familiar, the rain suited my sagging mood perfectly. How many times had I walked down this street? Thousands? I must have been an odd sight for the taxi driver, a recent immigrant judging from his appearance and accent. There goes a tall, well-dressed, bald guy risking his expensive silk tie and wool business suit, walking off into the cold rain down a lonely, now nameless street.

Walking Home

Under my feet the slope of the hill and the curve of the street felt surprisingly familiar. The walk pulled out deeply buried memories, the kind you don't even realize are still there. And in some unexplainable way this walk was comforting. Touching some part of my soul, it was almost like walking home. Despite the changes something felt really good here, but removing the houses was disorienting for me. I’ve got to give credit to the demolition teams, they did a great job of cleaning up after razing the houses. I expected to find something; driveways, foundations, bricks or some other debris to mark the old home sites. But there wasn’t anything left that I could find, not even a bare spot in the grass and leaves. It was quiet except for the raindrops. Peaceful like a cemetery without tombstones, or a park without the swing sets and picnic tables. A park that no one ever uses. Drawing from long ignored memories I searched. Time distorts things and my legs are longer now, the distances were shorter and houses must have been smaller than I remembered as a boy. At first I walked past the lot where my home once stood, then I turned back. I knew it must be close. A vaguely familiar number was spray painted on the street, I’d almost missed it again. My cell phone was handy, I’m glad she answered. A call to my mother confirmed our street number, I had found it.

Silence

Only afterward did I realize, no planes flew over while I walked the now nameless street in Carrollton. None. I don’t need to go back again, I get it now. But I must admit, it’s been really hard to put all of this out of my mind. The community where thousands once lived doesn't exist any longer. A touchstone in my life is missing. The house where I was raised, the house my young parents bought new and proudly cared for like it would last forever, is simply gone. Sara Barwinski, a social worker who fought the runway project, says the population of Bridgeton was reduced by one-third. "The runway was absolutely a mistake," says Barwinski, whose own home was consumed by the unnecessary landing strip, "Six thousand people lost their homes for nothing." And Barwinski isn't even counting those who lost a "home" they no longer lived in.
Carrollton; an Aerial View Seemed Appropriate
Carrollton; an Aerial View Seemed Appropriate
Carrollton, a Monument to Egotism, Greed and Wasteful Government Spending
Carrollton, a Monument to Egotism, Greed and Wasteful Government Spending
ROAD CLOSED Once a Street Full of Life - Now Nameless and Abandoned
"ROAD CLOSED" Once a Street Full of Life - Now Nameless and Abandoned
All That Remains, 12618 in Yellow Paint
All That Remains, 12618 in Yellow Paint