$2.2 Million for a Few Clueless Travelers

Written by Jeff Johnson on July 9, 2009. Posted in General

A committee of the Metropolitan Airports Commission voted unanimously yesterday to approve $2.2 million for new signs directing travelers to the two airport terminals. According to a Star Tribune story, the committee approved funds for 16 signs with the words “Terminal 1” and “Terminal 2” to replace signs that now say “Lindbergh” and “Humphrey.” Twenty-eight other signs would list the names of airlines at each terminal.

In addition, the MAC is looking to spend $185,000 for a public relations effort to inform the public of these changes before they are made.

The full MAC will vote on the proposal later this month.

The reason for this expenditure: Approximately 25,000 people per year get lost trying to find their terminal.

According to the airport’s website, 34 million passengers were served at MSP in 2008.  Assuming the 25,000 lost passenger figure is correct (although I question how one can accurately estimate this number), approximately .07% of MSP passengers each year are confused by the current signs bearing the names Lindbergh and Humphrey.  That’s not 7%, it’s .07%.  Seven passengers out of every 10,000 get lost.

According to material on the MAC’s website, these same signs were changed in 2000 to include the Lindbergh and Humphrey designations (as opposed to the previous designation of “Main” and “International”).

Some people might find this expenditure a little crazy (although I find it somewhat comforting to see units of government other than Hennepin County expending in an arguably crazy manner).

Questions that immediately come to mind: How does changing “Lindbergh” and “Humphrey” to “Terminal 1” and “Terminal 2” make the confused .07% any less clueless?  Why was the decision made in the first place (only 9 years ago) to place the “Lindbergh” and “Humphrey” designations on these same signs?  If these new $2.2 million signs are going to erase the confusion for motorists on the highway – particularly out-of-towners who don’t know the Twin Cities, why do we need a $185,000 public relations campaign to explain it to Minnesotans first? 

I do believe that signs listing the airlines served by each terminal would be helpful, but that could certainly be done for a small fraction of this amount by adding to some of the existing signs.

The Strib story states that this money will come “all from airport revenue – not tax dollars.”  According to the MAC website, 46% of its revenue comes from concession and parking fees, 34% comes from airline fees and 20% comes from other sources (such as bond sales, federal grants and “passenger facility charges”).  “Federal grants” sound suspiciously like tax dollars to me, but let’s take the Star Tribune’s word for it.

Even assuming that direct tax dollars are not being spent on this project, the same citizens who pay taxes will be footing the bill for this $2.2 million project.  When the MAC assesses the fees that fund it, nearly every penny is passed on to the citizens coming to the airport – whether through higher ticket prices or concession prices, parking fees or “passenger facility charges” (whatever those are).

While this money  might not technically be tax dollars, it’s public money being spent by a public body.

Consequently, I’m hearing many people complain about this potential expenditure either because it will cost much more money than necessary to address a small problem or because someone should have anticipated this issue nine years ago before changing these signs the last time. 

My main beef with this expenditure, however, is a little different.  It’s with the underlying philosophy that drives it: Government must pass legislation or spend money to address every perceived problem in society, no matter how tiny the issue in the grand scheme of things.  It’s the same philosophy that argues for myriad languages on street signs or transit schedules, health insurance coverage mandates for every ailment known to man or, to cite a recent example, the new Minnesota law mandating private businesses to open their employee-only restrooms to anyone with irratable bowel syndrome (no, I’m not kidding).

The philosophy is well-intentioned and leads to laws and expenditures that provide some benefit to a few (the bus rider who doesn’t speak English, the shopper with irratable bowel syndrome or the traveler who can’t figure out which airport terminal to use), but those same laws and expenditures negatively affect the freedom (and pocketbooks) of everyone else.  At some point we have to draw the line. 

Maybe $2.2 million to help .06% of MSP travelers would be a good place to start.

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