By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 2009
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- At the behest of Rep. John P. Murtha (D), chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, the Pentagon has spent about $30 million equipping the little-used airport named for him so it can handle behemoth military aircraft and store combat equipment for rapid deployment to foreign battlefields.
Most of the improvements, funded through appropriations approved by Murtha's panel, have not been used for their intended purpose. The projects delighted National Guard and reserve units based in Murtha's Pennsylvania district that have seen budget cuts, but critics charge that the expenditures have been a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Murtha and other supporters say the upgrades make the airport a critical backup if a military crisis or terrorist attack ever derails operations at Pittsburgh International Airport, two hours away.
"Congressman Murtha has added billions of dollars for the National Guard and reserves over the years," said Murtha spokesman Matt Mazonkey. "Ensuring that they have the necessary facilities, equipment and training for both overseas deployments and state emergency response is not only his priority, it's his job."
Several active military officials contacted about the projects declined to comment for the record. Pennsylvania National Guard Adjutant General Jessica Wright said that while the air unit has never before required a separate emergency location, "it's a matter of that one time" it would be needed.
Some locals call the Johnstown airport "Fort Murtha" because of the stream of wartime projects at the facility. Although its runway is capable of servicing the largest airplanes in North America, the airport now is used only by small commuter planes that make six trips a day back and forth to Washington Dulles International Airport.
Many of the commercial flights, which are subsidized by federal transportation dollars, carry only a handful of passengers. On a recent visit, all of the departing flights were less than half full, and one had only four passengers -- screened by seven federal airport personnel.
All told, Murtha has steered about $150 million in federal funds to the airport. This spring, it was among the first four in the country to receive stimulus money -- $800,000 for a runway-widening project.
Four years ago, Murtha shared his vision of turning his hometown tarmac into a military hub. The military-oriented projects have included a reinforced concrete runway costing $17.8 million, a stronger loading area costing $12 million and a wider turning lane for $1 million. The Army also paid $750,000 to lease adjoining airport land where it announced plans to build humidity-controlled sheds in which sensitive military equipment would be stored.
"Nobody wants to say no to Congressman Murtha or make him mad because he controls defense appropriations," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog group. "Murtha wanted an airport, and he knew he could get one. It's like he's a billionaire, except it's not his money."
Raymond Porsch, chairman of the local airport authority, said the authority wasn't actively involved in crafting the vision of an alternative military base at Johnstown. But Porsch said he supports new infrastructure to create jobs.
In 2004, Murtha supported a plan to put the Army Reserve in charge of new climate-controlled storage units at the airport, part of a broader plan to protect expensive Humvees and Bradley tanks. That year, the Reserve signed a 99-year, $750,000 lease for several acres on the airport's southern end. But then a geologic survey found stubborn rock underground, which ratcheted up the projected construction cost.
"Evidently they ran out of funding," said airport manager Scott Voelker. "Which is idiotic. It's kind of crazy they didn't do their homework before they leased that land from the airport."
Army Reserve officials did not respond to requests for comment. Toby Croyle, a Reserve maintenance chief responsible for facilities in Johnstown, said he is familiar with the project but could not answer detailed questions. "As far as I know, that program is deemed no longer necessary," Croyle said.
Murtha also pushed for the Pentagon to install a state-of-the-art digital radar surveillance system to spot weather systems more than 100 miles away. But the $8.6 million radar tower has not been used since it was completed in 2004.
The National Guard Bureau says this kind of radar is not part of its plans or priorities, though the Pennsylvania-based unit argues that the radar is a "perfect complement" to its air traffic control unit's mission. The Guard has been paying roughly $1,500 a month to keep the unmanned radar spinning and says it hopes to get staff in the future for the facility.
A spokesman said the Guard has "no problem" paying the electric bill.
"It's important we continue to provide maintenance for that radar," said Pennsylvania National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Cleaver. "If that radar sat there without spinning, it would degrade."
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.