Saturday, September 05, 2009

WSJ: John Murtha's Airport and Other Wasteful Earmarks

My political science professor told me how amazed European visitors were at the practice of earmarks: legislators amend bills to insert spending provisions that benefit their own states. Although not all of these earmarks are wasteful, many are. The Wall Street Journal has a piece about some earmarks that are egregiously wasteful:

If you hate the hubbub of crowded airports, you might want to consider flying out of Johnstown, Pa. The airport sees an average of fewer than 30 people per day, there is never a wait for security, you can park for free right outside the gate, and you are almost guaranteed a row to yourself on any flight.

You might wonder how the region ever had the air traffic demand to justify such a facility. It didn't. But it is located in the district of one of Congress's most unapologetic earmarkers: Democrat John Murtha.

In 20 years, Mr. Murtha has successfully doled out more than $150 million of federal payments to what is now being called the airport for no one. I took a trip to southwestern Pennsylvania to explore how this small town received so much money and whether the John Murtha Airport is a legitimate federal investment.

There are many in Johnstown who see the airport as crucial. Johnstown Chamber of Commerce President Bob Layo tells me: "If the airport isn't paying dividends now, it will in the future." But those dividends appear to be a mirage.

There are a total of 18 flights per week, all of which go to Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. I was visiting the airport from Washington, but because flights cost a pricey $400, I drove. The drive took less than three and a half hours and cost about $35 in gas—not to mention that it was arguably faster than flying. And this isn't a remote area of the state: Murtha airport is less than two hours from the Pittsburgh airport.

The airport has an $8.5 million, taxpayer-funded radar system that has never been used. The runway was paved with reinforced concrete at a cost of more than $17 million. The latest investment was $800,000 from the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to repave half of the secondary runway. (Never mind that the first one is hardly ever in use.)

Airport Director Scott Voelker admitted in an interview that having a never-used unmanned radar system is "dumber than dirt." But he says the airport is necessary and blames its current shortcomings on the economy. "To get more passengers, we need more flights. To get more flights, we need more passengers," he says. Mr. Voelker believes the "economy has dictated to the airlines to cut back on flights." In other words: The airport was not built in response to passenger or airline needs.

The usually barren airport—there were several times during the day I paced the building for 15 minutes and did not see another human being—has a lot of unused advertising space. But you can't miss the large picture of John Murtha among a collage of Lockheed Martin workers at the airport's center. It's a monument to earmarks: "Partnerships Make a World of Difference," the ad reads.

Tickets to fly to Johnstown are expensive, even though every passenger flying out of John Murtha Airport has a $100 subsidy behind the ticket courtesy of the federal Essential Air Service program, which provides support to struggling rural airports. A woman who had just gotten off a flight told me that there were only four people on her plane. "The plane could have held at least 30 passengers," she said.

In addition to the airport, Mr. Murtha's ability to corral federal funds is apparent in the local medical research center (named after his wife), the John P. Murtha Technology Center, the area's thriving defense contracting industry, and numerous other local landmarks. The unemployment rate in Johnstown is currently below the national average of 9.4% thanks to federal largess and the fact that so many have moved away from the area.

Bill Polacek, a local businessman and a member of the airport's board of directors, told me that the citizens of Johnstown need Mr. Murtha's earmarks. "Quite frankly, if he didn't do that, we wouldn't elect him," he said.

I asked Mr. Layo of the Chamber of Commerce if he thinks Mr. Murtha's earmarks should stop now that Johnstown has emerged from the economic crisis it faced two decades ago. "I don't think you're ever finished," he replied. As long as Mr. Murtha is in Congress, they never will be.

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