Of 17 construction projects at Florida airports being paid for with stimulus money, St. Petersburg- Clearwater's rates the lowest on a federal priority list — by far.
In fact, only two of the more than 300 airport stimulus projects in the nation rate lower.
Still, the airport, which served 364,000 passengers in 2008, received $5.4 million in stimulus cash. Tampa International Airport, which served 24 times as many fliers, got $8 million.
A statement from the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport thanked U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young for a "key role" in getting money for terminal renovations, but the legislator says it wasn't him.
Young, a Republican known for bringing financial goodies to his district, is a critic of the stimulus program — but says he's still glad to see the money land here.
"This is an administration earmark, and the money would have gone somewhere," Young said. "So why not Pinellas County?"
The grant underscores a warning that the Federal Aviation Administration is doling out stimulus money to projects with low priority ratings and "questionable economic merit."
In early August, the FAA's Office of Inspector General issued an advisory warning on how the agency makes grants.
According to the advisory, the FAA modified an existing system to decide which airports get stimulus funding. Under that system, the FAA rates the national priority of projects on a scale of 0 to 100, which is the highest.
Typically, projects have had to meet a threshold of 40 or above to get federal funds. But to ensure that the most pressing airport construction needs are met, the agency raised the target threshold to 62 for projects getting stimulus money.
The priority ratings of stimulus projects involving 16 Florida airports are between 56 and 81.
Then there's St. Petersburg-Clearwater. Its project rates just 35. Tampa International's project, on the other hand, is 68.
While a dozen other stimulus projects in the nation's airports rate 35 also, only two rate lower.
Chicago-Rockford International Airport in Illinois got $1 million, and Pocatello Regional Airport in Idaho got $1.9 million. The projects, both involving terminal work, each had a 31 rating.
The inspector general's advisory did not specifically cite St. Petersburg-Clearwater. The office is auditing the FAA's spending of stimulus dollars and declined to comment while the work is under way.
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said that when the stimulus bill was being developed, much attention was given to ensuring it was free of earmarked projects often found in federal legislation.
In practice, however, Ellis said lawmakers are making their clout felt at federal agencies that decide where the money goes.
"In a lot of agencies," Ellis said, "stimulus spending has become a sort of black box or smoke-filled room where lawmakers can move in and use their influence."
In denying he played a role, Young, who voted against the stimulus bill in February, said he had sought money for the airport in the past. This time, however, he said it was news to him when the FAA, as required by law, notified his office of the award.
Airport officials, too, said they had no contact with Young about the money before hearing from his office it had been granted.
Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman, said political considerations have played no role in her agency's allocations.
The rating system, while important, was just one criterion used, Brown said. Also considered were the ability to get a project under way quickly, geographic diversity, increasing airport capacity and other factors.
"There are priorities that arise at various times that were not built into that formula," Brown said, "like the need to renovate terminal buildings at smaller airports."
That's what the money is for at St. Petersburg-Clearwater.
Airport director Noah Lagos said his terminal had been built in 12 phases since 1955. The money is being used to replace doors, fix roofs and install new elevators and baggage conveyors, among other things, he said.
Lagos said the work, which is under way, has created roughly 44 construction jobs.
"How the FAA deals with the priority rating is the FAA's business," he said. "What I had was an opportunity to go through an awards process and be awarded a much-needed grant."
By far, most of the nearly $51 million in federal stimulus money going to Florida airport's is for apron, taxiway and runway upgrades. Only St. Petersburg-Clearwater is using its money for terminal renovations.
In late August, the St. Petersburg Times asked the FAA for its priority ratings of projects that received stimulus money but was told a decision had been made not to release them.
The Times then filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the ratings, which the FAA received Sept. 3.
In response to several requests, the agency posted the priority ratings on part of its Web site on Sept. 23.
The Times was not notified that it had done so until Oct. 13, 11 days after the agency was required by law to respond to the newspaper's request.
Will Van Sant can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4166.