March 23–LAKELAND — Polk County will benefit from the work of U.S. Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, thanks to earmarks in the omnibus spending bill, appropriations legislation that bundles spending into one large bill. The U.S. Senate and House must still pass the $1.3 trillion legislation by the end of this week to avoid a government shutdown.

The bill has $122 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to buy a reliable backup for its hurricane hunting jet, kept in Lakeland. Nelson and Rubio have been pushing for a replacement after mechanical issues left the jet grounded several times in the last two hurricane seasons.

"It’s long past time for NOAA to get a suitable replacement for its aging hurricane hunter jet," said Nelson, a Democrat, after learning fellow lawmakers had included the money in the spending plan. "I’ve been relentless on this because 20 million Floridians are in the potential path of a hurricane and the data from this aircraft saves lives and property."

NOAA maintains three aircraft in Lakeland, including two P3 propeller aircraft, known as Miss Piggy and Kermit, that fly into the eye of the storms. One Gulfstream jet, nicknamed Gonzo, flies above the storms and is the plane that had issues in the last two hurricane seasons. The funding in the omnibus bill is for an updated Gulfstream jet. It will be outfitted with all the instruments NOAA needs to measure the intensity of the hurricanes, essential to weather forecasters.

Rubio, a Republican member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he worked with Appropriations Chairman Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi, and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, chairman of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, to secure the new hurricane hunter aircraft.

"The 2017 hurricane season inflicted widespread damage throughout Florida, and I am pleased there will be funding for a new aircraft to bolster the hurricane hunter mission," Rubio said in a statement. "The purchase of a new plane will replace an outdated and aging aircraft that had been sidelined for previous missions. Our hurricane hunters play an integral role in obtaining lifesaving data, and I am proud that we are taking this vital mission seriously by investing in our storm tracking capabilities."

NOAA began paying Lakeland Linder about $1.3 million a year in 2017 to lease the Airside Center at 3450 Flightline Drive — roughly 105,000 square feet of space. The contract includes an optional extension that would yield $5.8 million through the second five-year term. About 100 people work for NOAA in Lakeland.

"We’re happy about it — we love NOAA," said Lakeland Linder Reginal Airport Director Gene Conrad. "It’s another aircraft based here."

The bill also provides $100 million for a research and development program for automated vehicles. The SunTrax facility at Florida Polytechnic University is a qualified proving ground and will have the opportunity to benefit from the program.

Rick Maxey, assistant vice president of board management and economic development at Florida Polytechnic University, said the language in the bill allows the school to compete nationally for a portion of the $100 million.

The university partners with the SunTrax facility, a 475-acre autonomous vehicle testing site on Braddock Road, just off the Polk Parkway. Students from the university are expected to play a key role in the testing-ground infield at the $42 million facility. Construction on the track is expected to be completed by spring 2019.

"As a partner with SunTrax, we would qualify to compete," Maxey said.

Maxey said the school is expected to know more about the funding in the coming months.

Finally, the bill contains $178 million for specialty crop pests, including the Citrus Health Response Program, which is set to receive $67.5 million. The program researches citrus greening, a disease that is devastating the state’s signature crop.

"Even though we’re facing these challenging times, it’s comforting to know that our government officials, both in Tallahassee and Washington, are looking out for us and understand how important we are to the state of Florida," said Andrew Meadows, communications director for Florida Citrus Mutual.

Meadows said funding for the Citrus Health and Response Program is vital for "shovel-ready projects that we can get in the groves right away."

Kimberly C. Moore can be reached at kmoore@theledger.com or 863-802-7514. Follow her on twitter at KimberlyMooreTheLedger@KMooreTheLedger.

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