Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski pledged during a meeting Tuesday with St. Mary's County officials to support federal funding to extend regional broadband Internet access and more aid for schools.

Mikulski (D-Md.) heard comments about Southern Maryland's needs from about 30 local leaders, including County Commissioners President Jack Russell (D-At Large) and representatives from the Patuxent Partnership and the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance. Both are economic development groups, the latter focused on supporting the Navy installations in St. Mary's.

The meeting was part of what Mikulski called a "helicopter touchdown tour," which will send her on brief visits to every county in the state over the next few months.

"Because of what's going on here, we're going to be a safer country," Mikulski said, celebrating the accomplishments of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station just across Route 235 from the defense contractor's office where the meeting took place.

The group talked extensively about a regional broadband initiative, which would bring high-speed Internet to the region via a fiber-optic cable running from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia's Eastern Shore to the Patuxent base. Last year, the Maryland General Assembly allocated $2 million to the project, and Mikulski promised to ask the Senate to authorize additional federal funds.

"There is a national security interest at stake here," Mikulski said, pointing to a need to improve Internet connectivity near the Navy base. "I see this as one of my number one priorities."

Potential fallout from Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission decisions was also addressed extensively at the gathering. Although the Patuxent River base was relatively unaffected in the last round of BRAC review, completed in 2005, several speakers said leaders must keep an eye on future realignment processes to protect the St. Mary's economy.

Keith Fairfax, vice president of the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance, touted the work of the county's Encroachment Study Committee, which last week presented a series of recommendations to the county commissioners about ways to prevent construction in the base's flight path. "Encroachment" is a factor that works against military bases during BRAC deliberations.

County Commissioner Thomas A. Mattingly Sr. (D-Leonardtown) cited the creation of a protected Rural Legacy Area just south of the base and the removal of the Navy housing units known as the flattops as major successes in preventing encroachment on flight operations.

"The threat to the base has been removed," Mattingly said. "Furthermore, this sends a strong environmental message back to the people."

Mikulski also promised to work to increase federal funding to Southern Maryland schools, which qualify for federal aid because they contend with the impact from military facilities that do not pay taxes.

"There is only $5 million in 'impact aid' for the entire state of Maryland," Mikulski said. "We think that's kind of skimpy."

She added that she hopes to change the law so that communities can receive additional school funds based on projected growth rather than only after more students arrive.

Speakers mentioned several other issues of importance to the region, including transportation, workforce education opportunities and environmental issues in and around the Chesapeake Bay. Acknowledging the nearly 5,000 people who travel across the Patuxent River from Calvert County to work in St. Mary's each day, Mikulski promised to discuss funding for a wider Thomas Johnson Bridge with Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari.

"We could really, really use a new bridge," Navy Alliance President Todd Morgan said, drawing assenting nods from across the room.