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WASHINGTON – Minnesota Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon and a handful of northern state business leaders and Air National Guard officials flew to the nation’s capital this week — some at taxpayer expense — to beg bureaucrats and members of Congress for $11 million to extend a second airport runway in Duluth.
Gone are the days when someone like Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan, who supports the runway expansion and who even accompanied Prettner Solon to the Federal Aviation Agency for a meeting, could trade a favor with a member of the appropriations committee, who would then toss the cash to his district in exchange for a vote on something else.
Now state and local officials across the country are trapped in a much more opaque race against one another to secure billions of dollars idling in federal agencies. Many of the funding decisions now are made not by members of Congress but by Washington bureaucrats.
When Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2011, one of the first things leaders extinguished was the practice of earmarks, or directed federal funds for specific projects.
Five people traveled on this week’s trip, which included visits to the Pentagon and Capitol Hill to see Democratic Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar as well as Nolan, who represents Duluth. The effort illustrates the pressure state and local governments are under to gain an edge in a post-earmark America.
“It’s not rocket science,” said Nolan, who says he regularly tries to help Minnesota with federal dollars, despite the earmark ban. “You go to the agency and you tell them it’s important and it’s important to you as a member of Congress.”
The significance of the trip depends on who is asked. Though construction on Duluth’s primary runway won’t start for almost a decade, Prettner Solon maintains there is value in getting in front of federal officials early to learn how to be competitive. An FAA official says state officials should prioritize by filing an official funding request before traveling to Washington.
Duluth International Airport has one 10,152-foot runway that was built in the 1940s. A second runway is just a little longer than a mile, 5,700 feet. In about a decade the longer runway, primarily used by bigger planes in the 148th Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard and a couple of commercial carriers, will have to be rebuilt.
Because the winters stretch so long in northern Minnesota, airport officials estimate the long runway could be out of commission for several years. Prettner Solon and local chamber leaders worry that commercial carriers like Delta and Allegiant might relocate to another airport during the construction and forget about Duluth. Air National Guard officials are concerned that mothballing the landing strip would make them vulnerable to a base closure.
“Once you move an Air National Guard, if they’re gone for a year or two years or three years, you’re always taking the risk of, ‘oh, it’s working well somewhere else,’ ” Prettner Solon said.
The whole project, expanding one runway and rebuilding the other, is estimated at $31 million. Just expanding the second runway would cost $11 million.
Some officials, like Prettner Solon and the crew from the 8th Congressional District, say it’s worth spending public dollars to fly out to Washington to beseech the bureaucracy in person. Solon’s office estimates the two-and-a half-day trip to the capital, during the National Cherry Blossom Festival, one of the city’s peak tourist times, will cost $1,285 for her flight, accommodations, transportation around the city and meals.
‘Pounding the pavement’
Other people on the trip, including Mike Lundstrom of the Hermantown Area Chamber of Commerce, covered their own expenses. Col. Frank Stokes, commander of the 148th Fighter Wing of the Minnesota Air National Guard, had his trip paid by the military.
Sarah Binder, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on Congress, said there is a certain inefficiency created when members of Congress are removed from the equation.
“I have no doubt that much of the earmarking used to take place without someone jumping on a plane and pounding the pavement,” Binder said. “We shouldn’t over-idealize the expertise of the bureaucrats either. We really don’t know how these choices are being made at the agency level.”
‘It’s a political process’
Prettner Solon, who is from Duluth, and the others decided that the project was important enough to seek options outside of FAA funding, including money from the Pentagon, since the National Guard is based there.
“We know it’s a political process and we think relationships matter,” Lundstrom said. “The personal contact even at that level is really important because sometimes you’re just not hitting the mark on what you’re doing.”
Elizabeth Isham Cory, a FAA spokeswoman in the Great Lakes regional office, said Minnesota officials should formally ask for money and complete a master plan and environmental impact study.
“We don’t even have a funding request from them yet and that’s a very important first step,” she said. “We’re committed to working with them, but they have not determined when or to what extent they need federal dollars.”
Solon countered that even though they haven’t submitted an official funding request, the trip was worth the trouble and expense.
“We were given assurances by the Pentagon and the FAA that we were right where we need to be about getting in line and educating people,” she said. “It’s a queue. We want to stay in the queue.”