The John Murtha Airport

If you want to know why conservatives think taxes are far too high, why tea parties have sprung up across the country, and why the government can’t be trusted to run private companies, take a look at this story.

This sort of corruption, inefficiency, and incompetence is endemic to everything that our government does,

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.

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 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.”

…Federal largess is clearly evident here on Airport Road. Each of the six daily flights that the United Express local carrier makes to and from the airport is subsidized, costing taxpayers about $1.4 million, or $147 per passenger, last year. The subsidy is double the national average for the federal program designed to guarantee air service for 150 rural communities, excluding those in Alaska.

In addition to the passenger subsidy, the Murtha airport has long received funds from another federal program, meant to help pay for runway improvements and safety at regional airports. The airport has received $7.3 million since 2004 under the program. Last year, when the number of passengers fell below a federal threshold and the airport’s minimum yearly funding was about to drop from $1 million to $150,000, Murtha stepped in.

…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.

If you pay taxes, this sort of project is where your money goes. When the government takes over a business, this is the way it’s run. When people tell you the government can use your money better than you can, this is what they mean.

If you’re not angry at the size of government, Obama’s expansion of it, and what it means for the future of this country, you’re not paying attention.

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