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Pittsburgh Tribune Review June 19, 2005

Land is strong argument for base

By Brian Bowling

The argument for saving Pittsburgh's three military bases and the more than 1,400 jobs they supply likely will hang on 53 acres of bare tarmac and swaths of unused land.

Local officials on Tuesday will get the first of two chances to present their case directly to someone who has a say in keeping the bases open. That's when retired Air Force Gen. Lloyd W. "Fig" Newton, one of nine members of the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission, tours the 911th Airlift Wing in Moon. The other chance will be at a July 8 commission hearing in Baltimore.

Pit-BRAC, a task force of civic and business leaders, retired military members and politicians, is leading the fight to save the local facilities targeted by the Pentagon. The group will argue for keeping all three facilities, but admits that goal is a long shot.

"We understand that it can't be the way it's always been," said Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato, the group's co-chairman.

A Pentagon reorganization plan would close the 911th and the Army's Charles E. Kelly Support Facility in Collier and move the Army Reserve's 99th Regional Readiness Command from Moon to Fort Dix, N.J. Nationally, the cost-cutting plan would close or reduce operations at 62 major bases and 775 smaller ones. The local bases provide 845 jobs directly and support an estimated 571 private-sector jobs.

The 911th survived a Pentagon attempt to close it 10 years ago, and Pit-BRAC said it believes it has found an argument that will save the facility again.

The main reason the Pentagon gives for closing the 911th is that it has space to handle only 10 C-130 cargo planes. The Air Force says a 16-plane airlift wing is more cost-effective.

But the task force says defense officials failed to account for 53 acres of unused tarmac adjacent to the 911th that could handle additional aircraft. The county, which owns the land, has offered it several times for base expansion and, since 1998, has reserved it exclusively for that use.

The Air Force repeatedly has rejected that offer on the grounds that a reserve airlift wing needs to handle only eight C-130s, said Pit-BRAC Executive Director Charles Holsworth. Now that the military has changed the criteria to 16 planes, the Air Force has no reason to refuse the land, he said.

Another plus for the 911th, Onorato said, is that the county owns 1,200 developable acres at Pittsburgh International Airport. That space and Pittsburgh International's reputation for staying open even in blizzards that shut other facilities make a case not only for preserving the 911th but also for consolidating the three local military facilities at the airport, he said.

"It makes it very attractive for the military," Onorato said.

To save bases, local officials must convince the commission that the Defense Department substantially erred in its assessment of each base's current and future military value.

Fifty to 70 local volunteers are poring through reams of Pentagon data seeking to do just that. So far, they've found nothing to dispute the Defense Department's evaluation of the 99th or Kelly facility, Holsworth said.

However, the Pentagon hasn't released data showing how moving the 99th to Fort Dix would save money and improve the Army's ability to mobilize forces, Holsworth said. Similarly, the Army hasn't explained how it would handle the vehicle maintenance and troop transport functions the Kelly Support Facility now provides for parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and New York.

"There's some critical, critical data that's still stowed away in Washington, D.C.," Holsworth said.

This is the fifth round of base closings since 1988, and it figures to be less political than the previous four, said Bob Tritt, a lawyer with Atlanta-based McKenna Long & Associates, which represents communities trying to save military bases. For local officials, the next three weeks are critical because it is unlikely they'll win a last-minute reprieve from Bush or lawmakers, Tritt said.

"If the commission doesn't do it, it isn't going to happen," he said. "It isn't going to be that someone's senator or congressman pulls it out in the end."

The commission can change the status of individual bases, such as removing the 911th from the list of those set to close. The panel has until Sept. 8 to forward its recommendations to the president.

While Bush can send the list back to the commission for revisions, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn Hills, said Friday that Bush will not do that. Instead, the president will send the commission's recommendations to Congress, which can only accept or reject the list in its entirety.

The Pentagon is seeking to close about 10 percent of its bases, instead of the 25 percent originally planned, so the odds against saving a base escalate, Tritt said.

"It's going to be hard for every base. I think there's going to have to be some good reason to get it off the list," Tritt said.

Commissioners don't even plan to visit many smaller bases, a clear signal that efforts to save those installations are doomed, said national defense analyst John Pike, operator of GlobalSecurity.org. For example, Newton is scheduled to visit only the 911th, not the 99th or the Kelly Support Facility.

And a visit doesn't guarantee much, Pike said. However cordial the tour may be, commissioners, in many cases, are going through the motions, he said.

"I don't think the commissioners are going to be openly contemptuous of anybody. They're not going to sit there and read a book while people are testifying," Pike said.

Copyright 2005, The Tribune-Review Publishing Co.