By Jams Monteleone

Triplicate Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - The focus of a congressional hearing on growth of rural shifted abruptly Wednesday when lawmakers learned that at least 50 rural airports could lose federal funding through proposed cuts in the Essential Airport Service subsidy.

A Department of Transportation official testifying before the House transportation committee's aviation subcommittee said the president's budget proposal for next year would cap the EAS program at $50 million, shaving 54 percent from the current funding of $109 million.

The Del Norte County Airport was measured to be andquot;relatively isolatedandquot; by the Department of Transportation, spokesman Bill Mosley said, but still andquot;well within the list of communities that would be safeandquot; from being cut off the program entirely. That however, does not promise that funding levels will not be reduced.

Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio, a member of the subcommittee, called the proposed cuts absurd.

andquot;I am not conceding that the administration is going to be allowed to cut EAS funds,andquot; DeFazio said after the hearing. andquot;George Bush is telling 50 some odd communities across America to take a hike: Or take a long drive.andquot;

To reduce the expense of the EAS program, a list of the 50 airports that would lose funding has been developed by the Department of Transportation, said Michael Reynolds, deputy assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs, during his subcommittee testimony.

andquot;EAS is often viewed as an absolute entitlement whether the communities invest any time and effort in supporting the service of not,andquot; Reynolds said. andquot;We have proposed reforms to EAS to better focus its resources on the most isolated communities.andquot;

Subcommittee leadership has requested that the list be turned over to Congress by Thursday.

SkyWest, the only airline flying out of Del Norte County's McNamara Field, receives nearly $1 million per year through the EAS program to provide service to the isolated Crescent City region. Without the subsidy, the airline would face significant profit losses.

Nationwide, the program provides a similar subsidy to 145 rural airports.

During the hearing, Rep. Mike Thompson outlined the specifics of a bill that would exempt economically depressed regions from paying 5 percent of grant funds received for airport renovation.

Del Norte County would qualify for that exemption, which is unrelated to the EAS funding.