Residents need to lobby Congress against EAS cut

The Copper Country may soon lose valuable support for our transportation links to the rest of the country: the essential air service (EAS), which subsidizes the Houghton County Memorial Airport, is in danger. We still have a chance to fight for it, though.

Houghton County is a long way from most places. Two hours to Marquette isn’t bad for a day trip, but if you need to get to or from Chicago, thank goodness for the airport. I’ve done that eight-hour drive more than once on a snowy night when United couldn’t land in the Keweenaw winter.

I teach at Michigan Tech, where I know that telling a visitor, “OK, once you land in Marquette, you’ll need to rent a car and drive another two hours west,” makes it challenging to draw good talent from around the country to collaborate on research and enrich the experience of our students. Many other businesses around here will tell you the same thing.

Just because it’s crucial for us, though, doesn’t mean that it’s profitable for United Express. Our airport is supported by the EAS. This program subsidizes routes that, like ours, would be marginally profitable at best, maybe unprofitable depending on gas prices but would leave a region like the U.P. isolated if they were halted.

The EAS is best known for keeping towns alive in the heart of Alaska, but the Keweenaw would be a much more remote place without it.

Soon, the president will submit his budget request to Congress. Reportedly, his outline is based on the “Blueprint for Balanc” plan from the Heritage Foundation and is full of thoughtless, cruel cuts that would leave our country poorer, usually at the expense of people who are already under the boot. The very first item in its Transportation section is eliminating EAS.

Rural communities are sadly used to seeing their institutions vanish. That’s why we celebrate entrepreneurs who choose to put down roots here and citizens who work hard to jumpstart valuable new public services like Houghton County’s recent recycling initiative.

When it’s impossible to keep an asset alive, we soldier on and make do. But the real kick in the gut is when something that’s surviving gets taken away without considering its contribution to our lives.

A distant politician has to choose between helping people or fattening already bulging wallets and chooses to help the donors that got him there. If we fail to stand up, that is what could happen here.

You’d think that when a congressman’s district is threatened with a pound-foolish blow to its economic development prospects, he or she would be leading the charge against it. But while Alaska Sens. Murkowski and Sullivan have been out in front of this issue, and our senator, Debbie Stabenow, has supported the EAS for years, you’ll search in vain for a statement or comment from our recently elected U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman.

What can we do? One thing we can do is call Rep. Bergman and Sens. Stabenow and Gary Peters and let them know that EAS is important to our lives and our businesses out here on the roof of the Midwest.

Of course, the EAS isn’t the only target in the president’s budget. The Blueprint for Balance is full of unthinking eliminations of the kinds of services that are most important to rural regions: Rural Business-Cooperative Service discretionary programs, which help co-ops like those you see around the U.P.; and Legal Services Corporation, which provides legal assistance where it’s hard to get specialized lawyers. But taking on everything would demand cleaning house, so we have to pick our fights. Removing the EAS would leave us on the cliff’s edge. Call Congress and tell them it some programs are worth keeping.

William J. Keith is an assistant professor of mathematics at Michigan Technological University.