Lawmakers trade blame over airport project halts

WASHINGTON (AP) — House and Senate exchanged blame Monday for the legislative stalemate that precipitated a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration while making no overture to resolve the dispute to restore the agency to full operation.

The FAA’s operating authority expired at midnight Friday, forcing a partial shutdown of the agency. Dozens of airport construction projects across the country have been put on hold and thousands of federal employees were out of work.

Air traffic controllers have continued to work, as well as FAA employees who inspect the safety of planes and test pilots. Transportation officials have said safety won’t be compromised. But it was unclear how long the FAA can continue day-to-day operations before travelers begin to feel the effects of the shutdown.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said there have been no negotiations between the Republican-led House and the Democratic-led Senate to resolve the dispute.

Republican leaders said they are determined to hold their position that the Senate must accept a House-passed bill to extend the FAA’s operating through mid-September even though it contains a provision eliminating $16.5 million in air service subsidies for 13 rural airports that Democrats say is unacceptable.

“This is sort of sad, you know,” Mica told reporters. “On the eve of the country’s finances near collapse, it’s sort of symbolic of the whole problem here: No one is willing to eliminate any wasteful programs.”

The subsidy program was created after airlines were deregulated in 1978 to ensure continued service on less profitable routes to remote communities. Not all those communities are remote anymore. The GOP provision would end subsidies to communities less than 90 miles from a hub airport or where subsidies average greater than $1,000 per passenger.

Democrats said the real issue is that Republicans are insisting Democrats accept a host of contentious provisions added to a long-term FAA spending bill approved by the House in April. Among their key differences is a GOP proposal sought by industry that would make it more difficult for airline workers to unionize.

The Senate passed its own long-term funding bill in February without the labor provision, which Democrats insist much be dropped. They also accused Republicans of tying the elimination of rural air subsidies to their extension bill as a means to prod Democrats to make concessions on the labor issue.

“House Republicans are nowhere to be found, refusing to come back to the negotiating table after pulling yet another cheap political stunt at the expense of rural Americans,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement.

“Their reckless intransigence has not only shut down the FAA, but is threatening Congress’ ability to successfully complete work on the long-term FAA reauthorization that our economy and the livelihoods of thousands depend upon,” he said.

The shutdown is costing the FAA about $30 million a day in lost revenue because airlines no longer have authority to collect ticket taxes. That money goes into an aviation trust fund. The fund “has a healthy balance now, but that would be depleted in fairly rapid order” without congressional action, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt told reporters in a conference call.

Nearly 4,000 FAA employees in 35 states, and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, who are paid from the trust fund have been furloughed.

About $2.5 billion in federal airport construction grants cannot be processed because workers who handle those grants have been furloughed, officials said. That, in turn, has halted construction projects, putting hundreds of other people employed by those jobs out of work.

Dozens of stop-work orders were issued over the weekend for projects to build and modernize airport control towers, as well as other improvement projects, officials said. Many of the airport projects are designed to improve the efficiency of air travel and reduce congestion.

“This is simply going to slow down our ability to expand to keep up with growing traffic demands,” Babbitt said.

For example, work was scheduled to begin Saturday on a $6 million project to demolish a control tower at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. But the Paul J. Scariano construction firm laid off 40 workers who were assigned to the demolition project, leaving the partly dismantled tower unattended, company vice president Luca Toscano said.

“I’m worried about the planes underneath,” Toscano said. “There’s nobody up there keeping an eye on the equipment or scaffolding or anything. If we get a bad storm, a piece of wood or something might go flying.”

Work also has stopped for new control towers at airports in Las Vegas, Palm Springs, Calif., Oakland, Calif., Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Kalamazoo, Mich., and Gulfport, Miss., among other projects, officials said.

At Oakland International Airport, 60 people working on the facility’s new $31 million control tower were told not to report to work on Monday, said Rosemary Barnes, an airport spokeswoman. Barnes said the construction workers would not get paid until the issue was resolved.

Long-term funding authority for the FAA expired in 2007. Unable to agree on new long-term funding legislation for the agency, Congress has kept the FAA operating through a series of 20 short-term extension bills.

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Associated Press writers Christopher Hawley in New York and Jason Dearen in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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Online:

FAA work stop orders: http://www.faa.gov/news/media/workstop/

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