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Officials grateful for airport, bypass funding

ALBANY, Ga. -- Late Sunday U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, announced new funding for two local projects attached to an appropriations bill.

The Fiscal Year 2011 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations bill (H.R. 5850) provides $500,000 for apron and various improvements to the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport and $450,000 for the North Bypass in Leesburg.

The funding, which passed the House 251-167, still must pass the Senate, but it was welcome news to Lee County and Albany-Dougherty Aviation Commission officials.

Lee County Commission Chairman Ed Duffy and outgoing Lee County Administrator Alan Ours had traveled to Washington in July of last year to meet with Bishop and U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss to plead their case for funding.

"We went up there with three projects, and they asked us what our No. 1 priority was," Duffy recalled. "We told them it was the North Leesburg Bypass. We run 90 school buses a day into Leesburg, and to me the bypass is a vital safety issue for our children.

"We are grateful to Congressman Bishop for his support and assistance."

Right-of-way purchases for the bypass will begin in 2010.

Aviation Commission Chairman Dr. Bill Mayher was also thrilled with the funding, which will go toward apron and ramp work at the airport.

"This funding is extremely important to the airport," Mayher said. "We're about to build a new terminal. The one we have is in terrible shape; the roof leaks and the air conditioning is breaking down.

"The ramp is in terrible shape, and the apron needs to be extended. We can't build a new terminal without these site improvements being made. And we depend on federal funds to do it."

Mike Keown, who is the Republican nominee for Bishop's District 2 House seat, acknowledged the projects needed to be funded, but he questioned the timing of the announcement.

"It's funny that during an election year the congressman starts handing out checks," Keown campaign spokesman Jay Walker said. "But what people need to realize is that Bishop and the Obama administration are piling $400,000 of debt on every man, woman and child in south Georgia.

"Mike Keown will fight hard for south Georgia's share of federal money but will not support out-of-state earmarks that may or may not create jobs."

The wild card in final approval of the funding is the U.S. Senate, which must also pass the bill.

It is unclear what the Senate will do with the appropriations bills this year. No timeline has been set for the Senate to consider its version of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations bill.

Because no one is certain what form this bill will come to the Senate floor, neither senator has yet to make a decision on how he plans to vote.

Chambliss, however, did issue the following statement: "I understand the importance of funding critical infrastructure projects for communities in Georgia, including the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport and state Route 133, which I support. They are presently going through the appropriations process, and I hope they are included in the final version of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations bill.

"While I remain supportive of meritorious transportation projects in Georgia, I will continue to work to reduce overall congressional spending to ensure fiscal sanity is restored."