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Murtha's Earmarks Keep Airport Aloft

A new air traffic control tower was built in 1999 for $6.8 million, after Murtha persuaded Congress to add the project to the federal budget. He also got the funds that year to build the new terminal, where his portrait graces the entrance.

In 1998, at Murtha's urging, the Marine Corps agreed to move a helicopter unit to Johnstown and constructed a $14 million hangar and training facility at the airport's southeastern edge.

That year, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) singled out the hangar project on the Senate floor as an example of Congress members' "addiction to pork." He argued that larding up the Defense Department budget with pet projects the Pentagon did not request would hurt the working military.

Voelker, who was in the Air Force for 30 years, was brought in to manage the airport after a rocky period of uneven management. In 2007, the airport authority fired longtime manager Joe McKelvey after he used FAA funds to buy a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV to use at the airport. The FAA had initially approved the expense for a safety vehicle on the property, but other agency managers later questioned it.

The same day, over some members' objections, the authority hired MTT Aviation Services. The company is a subsidiary of Mountaintop Technologies, a defense contractor that had received at least $23 million in earmarks from Murtha since 2001 and is run by his close friend. The subsidiary was formed to handle fuel sales and other services at the airport shortly before its role was expanded to airport manager.

MTT hired a lobbying firm that had one of Murtha's former staffers as a lead lobbyist and had once employed Murtha's brother.

Some members complained that MTT had no airport management experience and was a tenant at the airport, creating a conflict of interest.

Although some local residents and business leaders praise the convenience of the commuter flights, others note the airport's liabilities: Tickets can cost hundreds more than they do when flying out of a bigger city, and Johnstown's mountaintop location can force frequent cancellations in winter.

United Express's local carrier, Colgan Air, and the authority are running radio and television ads to encourage locals to use the airport, citing its convenience: By connecting Johnstown to Dulles, locals can get to 390 other cities without driving to Pittsburgh.

"And, listen, now the parking is free!" booms an announcer in a radio advertisement. "It's your connection to the world: the John P. Murtha Johnstown-Cambria Airport."

Researcher Julie Tate and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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