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Push to privatize Lambert fails to take off

Terminal 2 at St. Louis Lambert International Airport [Jim Erickson photo]

The dream of a privately owned and operated regional airport in St. Louis evaporated a few days before Christmas.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson announced on Friday, Dec. 20 that she no longer supported efforts to privatize Lambert International Airport. The announcement came suddenly and was an apparent shock to privatization advocates and relief to opponents.

“Today, I have asked my representative not to support or vote to approve the issuance of the Request for Proposals,” Krewson wrote in a letter to the airport working group. “… I have been listening closely to residents, business leaders, and other elected officials. They have expressed serious concerns and trepidation about the process, and about the possibility that a private entity might operate the airport.”

Pressure had been mounting on Krewson over the past several weeks coming from multiple angles including fellow city leaders, elected officials in St. Louis County, prominent business owners and the media.

St. Louis County Council Chairman Ernie Trakas [R-District 6] had been an outspoken critic of the process and the consulting group tasked by Krewson to examine the possibility of privatization.

On Friday, Trakas was quick to celebrate an apparent victory.

“This what can be accomplished when citizens [and] their elected reps refuse to lay down on important issues, but instead speak truth to power,” Trakas via his twitter account on Dec. 20.

In addition to voicing his concerns and critiques through the press and via social media, Trakas also led efforts to pass a recent resolution by the St. Louis County Council calling for more transparency in the study of potential privatization.

Terminal 1 [St. Louis Lambert International Airport photo]

“This is a regional asset that will affect tens of millions of people in the region,” Trakas told reporters after the council’s Nov. 5 meeting. “So, the idea that somehow that should be considered for privatization by a cabal of paid consultants who will gain if privatization goes forward is at [the] heart [of the issue].”

The paid consultants that Trakas was referring to were part of The Airport Working group charged by Krewson to explore the merits and obstacles toward privatization. Despite repeated assertions by members of the group that all meeting minutes and relevant documents were being placed online [via the website www.fly314.com] serious concerns lingered.

The Post-Dispatch filed several Sunshine requests over the past many weeks seeking additional information from the group. As reported by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Tony Messenger, those requests were stalled by city officials.

It’s not clear if city officials violated state law in their handling of those requests, but what is clear is that reporting on them only added fuel to the fire that by now was raging against the privatization push. Accusations of political cronyism and corruption were no longer contained to whispers and it’s likely Krewson could see the political winds blowing clearly in one direction.

If the process towards privatization had been successful, Lambert would have been the nation’s first privately run public airport. As Krewson noted in her letter, “being ‘first’ at anything brings inherent risks and skepticism.”

What’s next for the future of Lambert is sure to be one of the most discussed and debated topics of 2020.

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