WASHINGTON — A project to replace Offutt Air Force Base's crumbling runway appears to be moving forward, although key questions still have to be answered.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., was upbeat this week following a meeting with Maj. Gen. Timothy Green, the Air Force director of civil engineers.

"The question is not 'if' but 'when,'" Fortenberry told The World-Herald following the meeting.

It's a situation that carries big economic implications for the Omaha area. The fear is that a deteriorating runway could eventually prompt the Air Force to move the 55th Wing to a different base.

That would cost the area thousands of military and civilian jobs.

Fortenberry has formed a task force on the issue, along with fellow Nebraska Reps. Adrian Smith, a Republican, and Brad Ashford, a Democrat. Their efforts prompted Wednesday's meeting with Green.

The Air Force plans to go out for bids on a design contract for the runway by May, but is still studying whether to do a partial or full replacement of the runway, Fortenberry said.

Its ongoing analysis is looking at the cost and strain that comes with moving the 55th Wing during the construction period, he said.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts joined Wednesday's meeting with Green by phone. In addition to his conversation with Green, Fortenberry said he also recently ran into the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh.

When he brought up the runway, Welsh told him that he was well aware of it and that he heard about the need for a new runway from Adm. Cecil Haney, head of U.S. Strategic Command, which is headquartered at Offutt.

MORE ON OFFUTT

A state senator from Bellevue is calling for the creation of a new military affairs position — a "point person" to deal with military issues big and small.

Additional lobbying for the runway project came last month as Ashford joined President Barack Obama on his trip to Omaha following his final State of the Union address.

Ashford offered Obama a warning as Air Force One prepared for its landing at Offutt.

"You've got to hold onto the seat here because we're going to be landing on the bumpiest runway in the United States," Ashford said he told Obama.

The president smiled at the sales pitch, Ashford recalled, and the Omaha congressman conceded that the landing itself was not all that rough.

Still, Ashford said, there's no question that the runway improvements are long overdue.

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