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Murtha's Earmarks Keep Airport Aloft

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By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 2009

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- The John Murtha airport sits on a windy mountain two hours east of Pittsburgh, a 650-acre expanse of smooth tarmac, spacious buildings, a helicopter hangar and a National Guard training center.

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Inside the terminal on a recent weekday, four passengers lined up to board a flight, outnumbered by seven security staff members and supervisors, all suited up in gloves and uniforms to screen six pieces of luggage. For three hours that day, no commercial or private planes took off or landed. Three commercial flights leave the airport on weekdays, all bound for Dulles International Airport.

The key to the airport's gleaming facilities -- and, indeed, its continued existence -- is $200 million in federal funds in the past decade and the powerful patron who steered most of that money here. Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) is credited with securing at least $150 million for the airport. It was among the first in the country to win funding from this year's stimulus package: $800,000 to repave a backup runway.

The facility, newly renamed the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport, is a testament to Murtha's ability to tap streams of federal money for pricey, state-of-the-art projects that are rare among regional airports of comparable size.

Murtha, dubbed the King of Pork by critics, consistently directs more federal money to his district than any other congressman -- $192 million in the 2008 budget. His pattern of steering millions in earmarks to defense contractors who give to his campaign and hire his allies as lobbyists is being scrutinized by the FBI as part of an investigation of a lobbying firm led by one of Murtha's closest friends.

The lawmaker, who uses the airport frequently during his campaigns, has steadily steered millions of taxpayer dollars to it to build a new terminal with a restaurant; a long, concrete runway sturdy enough to handle large jets; and a high-tech radar system usually reserved for international airports.

The airport's passenger count has fallen by more than half in the past 10 years. When Johnstown native Bill Previte arrived on a recent morning, he lamented that his plane was half-empty and that the terminal was deserted.

"Doesn't it seem kind of ridiculous to have a motorized carousel for the baggage claim when 15 people get off the airplane?" he said. "It's obvious: There's not enough population to justify this place."

Murtha, who heads the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, has fought for airport funding as a way to bring jobs to his congressional district, devastated by losses in the steel and coal industries.

Murtha spokesman Matt Mazonkey defended the public spending and said it is unfair to weigh the airport's low volume of passengers against the federal dollars invested in the facility. He noted that several regional airports are confronting the same problem.

"Would we like to have additional commercial flights and business? Absolutely. But you don't attract additional business without having the infrastructure in place to do so," Mazonkey said.

Airport officials said the facility has been a selling point for businesses that are considering locating in Johnstown and praised Murtha's dedication to ensuring air service for the community.


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