Airports are usually charmless bastions of Starbucks, paperback book emporiums, and the giant scam that is the Duty Free Shop (Seriously, what did you save on that tax free Toblerone bar? A dollar?). One airport in Johnstown, Pa., stands out from the crowd however, and no, it isn't because it features a better class of Cinnabon.
Rather, it's the $150 million in federal money that has been poured into the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport that is causing a ripple effect of controversy from the halls of Congress to the hills of Western PA.
According to the Washington Post, the little-used airport has collected federal cash to fund projects as various as runway-widening ($800,000), a new air traffic control tower ($6.8 million), and a state of the art radar tower ($8.6 million) that costs $150,000 a month to maintain but has not been used since its completion in 2004. Even the passengers are expensive: federal subsidies for United Express' six daily flights from the airport cost about $1.4 million in 2008.
To anyone with even a cursory knowledge of politics, John Murtha is both famous and infamous for his ability to steer reams of federal cash into his blue collar Pennsylvania district. The 76-year-old Democrat, who has represented the 12th District since 1974, is the Chairman of the all-powerful Subcommittee on Defense Appropriations. This means that if you are looking for funding for any sort of defense initiative, then you better learn to give the gentleman from Johnstown whatever he wants in terms of appropriations for his home district. When it comes to the John Murtha Airport, this is no cheap proposition.
Taxpayer and good government watchdog groups, who have been among Murtha's harshest critics for decades, are making their feelings on the airport known. "Nobody wants to say no to Congressman Murtha or make him mad because he controls defense appropriations," Melanie Sloan, Executive Director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington told the Washington Post. "Murtha wanted an airport, and he knew he could get one. It's like he's a billionaire, except it's not his money," Sloan told The Post. "It's an exercise in spending more money than sense," added Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Of course both Murtha and the airport have ardent supporters, and most of them seem to be centered where it matters most: in Murtha's home district. "Mr. Murtha's been a godsend to this airport, no question about it," airport manager Scott Voelker told the Washington Post. "The economy's been really bad here since the steel mills pulled out. He has a vision for developing this airport and using it to bring businesses into this community."
Therein lies the rub. It really doesn't matter how spectacularly wasteful or unpopular the airport (or any of Murtha's pet projects) are on a national level. As long as he keeps the district happy, that's all the matters. All politics are indeed local, but that doesn't mean all the money has to be.
The airport has received $7.3 million in federal funding since 2004 as part of a program to offer federal support to small regional airports. In 2008 the total number of passengers that passed through the airport fell below the minimum threshold for full funding. The airport's annual cash injection was about to drop from $1 million to $150,000. Then Congressman Murtha spoke up.
"I strongly believe that the Johnstown Airport should receive the full $1 million in funding," Murtha wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration. "Without this money, the development of this airport could be significantly inhibited, and the community as a whole could suffer." A few months later federal stimulus money found its way into the airport's coffers and the budget gap was closed.
Let the Spinning Radar Spin
All of the controversy surrounding the airport hasn't just stemmed from federal funding however. The Washington Post reports that in 2007 MTT Aviation, a subsidy of a defense contractor that has received at least $23 million in federal earmarks from Murtha since 2001, was tapped to handle fuel sales and other essential services at the airport. MTT then hired a lobbying firm that employed one of Murtha's former staffers, and had once employed the Congressman's brother, to be the airport's representation on Capitol Hill. As if having a Congressman as its namesake wasn't enough of a representation for this regional airport on the national stage.
During the last Presidential election there was a whole lot of talk about the so-called "Bridge to Nowhere." That project was held up as a shining example of federal earmarks gone awry. The Johnstown Airport isn't exactly a "Runway to Nowhere" per se, but it comes damn close. Outside of three departing flights per weekday, all bound for Dulles International Airport, not a whole lot seems to be happening at "Fort Murtha." Sure, the $8.6 million radar keeps on spinning, even though it remains unmanned. After all, like Pennsylvania National Guard Spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Cleaver told the Post, "It's important we continue to provide maintenance for that radar. If that radar sat there without spinning, it would degrade."
You don't have to look to politicians or watchdog groups to get a good read on the reality of the airport's situation however. Bill Previte is a Johnstown native, and a recent passenger arriving at the airport. Previte, neither a Murtha crony nor any sort of anti-pork crusader, was recently asked one morning about his feelings on his hometown's federally funded commuter airport. "Doesn't it seem kind of ridiculous to have a motorized carousel for the baggage claim when 15 people get off the airplane?" Previte told the Post. "It's obvious: There's not enough population to justify this place." That very well may be true, and it very well may not matter one bit.
One expensive airfield
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