Last week Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer appeared on the KPTS Television public affairs program Impact to discuss his recent State of the City Address for 2012. While the mayor didn’t say much that is factually incorrect, examining some of his statement in a larger context is a valuable exercise.
Regarding the plans for Southwest Airlines to start service in Wichita, Brewer said: “Our number one goal is to create an environment where people can fly anyplace in the country they want.”
This is a curious statement by Mayor Brewer for this reason: According to its website, Southwest serves 72 cities. But other carriers that serve Wichita, such as American, United, and Delta, serve hundreds of cities in the U.S. and many more across the world. So Wichitans already have access to many more cities than Southwest serves.
Regarding the Affordable Airfares program and its subsidy to low-cost carriers, the mayor said the program has created an environment where “we’ve increased travel at the airport.”
The actual numbers barely support this claim. The chart below, using data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, shows the number of passengers at the Wichita Airport on a monthly basis. Since the monthly data varies so much, I’ve included a 12-month moving average line in black.
Would you say this chart shows “increased travel” as the mayor claimed? Yes, the passenger count has increased since 2003, but in recent years the moving average line is nearly flat, with a few ups and downs. Especially relevant is the period since 2006, when the Affordable Airfares program took affect. In 2005, the average monthly passenger count was 59,565. For the first seven months of 2011, it was 60,736.
So we can give the mayor credit for this: traffic is up — a little. But when compared to the cost of the subsidy program and the harmful effect on other airlines, I would say the program is less than a model success story.
There’s another way to look at airport traffic: the number of flights. Figures from the Wichita Airport appear in the chart below. While these figures include only weekday departures, statistics from BTS that include all flights show a similar trend: the number of flights is, and has been, going down. This is an important statistic, as for many people, especially business travelers, the availability of a flight at any cost is more important than low fares for everyone.
Mayor Brewer also said “We’ve actually cut $20 million out of the overall budget for the city.” This line of thinking is common among the political class. To them, if spending does not rise as fast as hoped for, it’s a cut. The chart below, however, shows that spending continues to increase, despite the claim of budget cuts.
On economic development, Mayor Brewer said we need to diversify Wichita’s economy, and he promoted wind energy and solar energy as industries that Wichita should diversify into.
The problem is — besides a few spectacular failures such as Solyndra — these two green energy sources don’t have much of a future, and don’t represent a good plan for Wichita to stake its future on. The False Promise of Green Energy, a new book from the Cato Institute, is described as follows: “Green energy promises an alluring future — more jobs in a cleaner environment. We will enjoy a new economy driven by clean electricity, less pollution, and, of course, the gratitude of generations to come. There’s just one problem: the lack of credible evidence that any of that can occur. The False Promise of Green Energy critically and realistically evaluates the claims of green-energy and green-jobs proponents who argue that we can improve the economy and the environment, almost risk-free, by spending hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars in return for false or highly speculative promises. … The False Promise of Green Energy illustrates the irresponsibility of attempting to transform modern society with borrowed money, wishful thinking, and bad economics. It shows how the top-down control programs offered by green-energy and green-jobs advocates are unlikely to achieve positive results compared with allowing competitive forces to continue to provide ever greater environmental quality and energy efficiencies.”
The energy sources Brewer wants Wichita to rely on for its economic future are highly dependent on government subsidy programs for their very existence. U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo of Wichita has introduced legislation to end all tax credits related to energy production, including wind and solar. We should rely on markets instead of government to decide which energy forms are best for the country. Mayor Brewer should not hitch Wichita’s wagon to energy forms that are bound to be losers in the long run, and even in the very near future.