Sep. 20--SOMERSET -- A Washington, D.C.-based political watchdog group is calling for an end to federal funding for the Lake Cumberland Regional Airport in Somerset.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sent a letter to Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), urging him to include the local airport in his efforts to eliminate wasteful government spending.
DeMint is pushing to end the flow of federal funds earmarked by Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) to a little-used airport in Johnstown, Pa., located in Murtha's congressional district -- and CREW asserts that the Lake Cumberland Regional Airport is a "similarly-funded and little-used airport" in Rep. Hal Rogers' (R-KY) district.
Local airport officials and Congressman Rogers, however, disagree with CREW's claims.
CREW's letter, signed by executive director Melanie Sloan, points out that the John P. Murtha Airport, boasting state-of-the-art facilities, only transported an average of 20 people per day in 2008.
"Under the direction of Rep. Murtha, the Department of Defense has spent $30 million over the years transforming this small regional airport into a military transport hub and staging area," the letter states.
"... In total, the airport has received earmarks totaling $150 million in the last ten years, courtesy of Rep. Murtha. The airport receives $1.4 million to subsidize air traffic. Similarly, Rep. Rogers has steered federal dollars to Lake Cumberland Regional Airport, a small facility located in his hometown, Somerset, Ky."
In the letter, Sloan says, "the airport sat empty for three years while the city tried to find airline carriers to service it," after the airport received a $3 million grant in 2004 to build a new terminal.
"In 2005, when Rep. Rogers served as a majority member of the House Appropriation Committee, he wrote to then-Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta seeking his support for Somerset's application for funding through the Small Community Air Service Development Program; the city won the grant," the letter continues.
"The airport annually receives a $1 million grant to subsidize flights, which allows passengers to pay less than $200 per ticket. Lake Cumberland Regional Airport's first commercial flight took off on Dec. 27, 2008, and flew 45 minutes to Nashville, Tenn. Beginning in May, the airport added service from Somerset to Washington Dulles International Airport on Monday mornings and Friday evenings -- exactly when government officials and those with government contracts may be flying between the two locations.
"The logic that has prompted you to seek an end to the $1.4 million subsidy for the John P. Murtha Airport also should compel you to end the $1 million annual subsidy for the Lake Cumberland Regional Airport. Both airports are funded through the largesse of influential members of Congress, both airports service few flights, and few passengers avail themselves of those flights.
"Wasted taxpayer money is wasted taxpayer money whether the money goes to an airport funded by a Democratic or a Republican member of Congress. CREW urges you to evaluate the advisability of funding the Lake Cumberland Regional Airport using the same criteria you applied to the John P. Murtha Airport. We believe when you do so, you will be compelled to offer an amendment stripping funding for both."
Rep. Rogers, along with Nathan Vallier, general manager for Locair, Inc., the airline servicing Lake Cumberland Regional Airport, were offended by the "uninformed" attack.
"These politically motivated attacks by Democratic Party hit teams and uninformed earmark crusaders like CREW are laughable," Rogers said Friday.
"Has anyone from CREW ever stepped foot in our community? Have they taken the time to address the challenges we face as a region? For 29 years in Congress I have done my level best to improve our region, and I will not let some outside group hurt our progress. Sen. DeMint rightfully ignored their baseless demands."
Vallier said CREW's facts were outdated.
When he learned of the group's letter, he contacted the Department of Transportation -- and quickly learned that the DOT had never heard of CREW.
"Their reaction was, 'Whatever,'" Vallier said. "I think these are just people who are out to get (Rogers)."
Claims in CREW's letter are, in fact, outdated. Sloan's statement that the airport "sat empty" for three years is unclear at best, and her letter neglects to mention that Locair now makes stops in five cities -- not two. The letter also fails to define how often the local airport is used, only calling it "little-used."
The Commonwealth Journal contacted Sloan Friday in an attempt to clear up some of the letter's claims.
"We've been following Mr. Rogers for a long time," Sloan said, "watching the amount of money he spends on projects of dubious utility."
CREW named Rep. Rogers to it's "15 most corrupt list" in 2007 and 2008.
Sloan said "questions were raised" about Lake Cumberland Regional Airport based on the small number of flights there and on the fact that most of the flights depart for Washington, D.C.
Vallier said some 200-250 individuals per month use Lake Cumberland Regional Airport to fly to Nashville International Airport, Cincinnati Northern Kentucky International Airport, Baltimore/Washington International Airport, and Washington Dulles International Airport -- as well as a flagstop in Beckley, W.Va. Those who use the airline service appreciate the free parking and the fact that there isn't a long drive to Nashville, Louisville or Lexington involved. Also, Vallier noted, the regional airport doesn't only serve Somerset and Pulaski County's populations. The local airport is used by travelers from surrounding counties, and many college students have been using the facility as well.
"(The relatively low air fares) make it affordable for a sector that would not travel by air otherwise," Vallier said. "In June, July and August, 630 passengers used the Somerset airport. When you look at the Essential Air Service bid, that's more than every market listed."
The Essential Air Service program was put into place to guarantee that small communities that were served by certificated air carriers before deregulation maintain a minimal level of scheduled air service. The Department currently subsidizes commuter airlines to serve approximately 140 rural communities across the country that otherwise would not receive any scheduled air service.
"If they think we've got 15,000 people here who never need to get anywhere, they're wrong," Vallier continued.
Sloan argued that 250 customers per month doesn't constitute a "well-used" airport.
"It would be one thing if people were actually flying from there, but 250 people a month doesn't pay for the airport. Federal money pays to keep it going," she said.
Sloan said Sen. DeMint should not just seek to end funding to one airport.
"Why just that one?" she asked. "The only difference is that one is funded by a Democrat and one is funded by a Republican. There is no logical distinction that can be drawn between Somerset, Ky., and Johnstown, Pa."
Sloan said she wasn't sure of the population size of either town.
"They are similar," she said. "It's safe to say neither is a major metropolitan area."
Sloan said statements she made in her letter were drawn from "recent press clips from local media" and admitted she wasn't sure if there was new information available from the time the original articles were written.
The articles used by Sloan were published by the McClatchy Washington Bureau and the Associated Press -- neither of which are based in the Lake Cumberland area -- and were released in January and May of this year.
When asked what she meant in her letter when she said the local airport "sat empty," Sloan said, "It apparently sat empty, meaning that it wasn't working."
The airport, located in Somerset for well over half a century, was making approximately 26,000 runs per year in the late 1990s. In 2003, an airport official said the local airport was the third busiest airport in Kentucky, besides commercial airports, based on takeoffs and landings.
When told that the airport had not been closed or empty at any time in recent history, Sloan said, "I didn't make it up. That's what was reported."
Sloan said CREW's main point in the letter was to ask Sen. DeMint to "be consistent. ... Don't cherry pick."
CREW's mission statement says the group uses "a combination of research, litigation and media outreach" to further its cause, which is to promote ethics and accountability in government and public life by targeting government officials who sacrifice the common good to special interests.
Vallier said Locair plans to continue servicing the Lake Cumberland region long after the federal subsidy has gone.
"We have dropped the subsidy per passenger below $300," Vallier said. "It was over $1,000 in March and April when we were flying to Nashville. ... We've taken proactive steps with our grant, including monitoring our budgets closer, and adding a 19-seat airplane because we're filling the 9-seater on some days. ... Our goal is to see what service patterns can exist once the subsidy has been exhausted, as we plan on being here."
"Rest assured, my commitment to southern and eastern Kentucky remains the same," Rogers said Friday.
"An ignorant attack from a shadow organization will never deter me from seeking new opportunities to our area and the Lake Cumberland Regional Airport is an integral part of our pro-growth strategy and long-term success. ... It's my unqualified belief that economic development and job creation are an overwhelming positive for any community. That is why my priorities have always been the same -- to bring jobs, new business and tourism to southern and eastern Kentucky. That being said, it should come as no surprise that I enthusiastically support Lake Cumberland Regional Airport.
"Those of us in and around community airports recognize their vital importance for regional development and know first hand that they are lifesavers when disaster supplies are needed and emergency services are required. Local airports create careers, inspire our next generation of aerospace engineers, train up a cadre of general aviation pilots and aircraft mechanics, and are a proven marketing tool for attracting business owners and developers.
"I am especially proud of Lake Cumberland Regional Airport's most recent accomplishment -- the successful launch of commercial air service. Now our families can more easily fly around the country; our businesses can attract new clients; and our hospitals can keep and recruit top-notch health professionals. The possibilities are endless with commercial flight service no longer an obstacle to our growth."