Aviation funding fight overshadowed by US debt debate


The fight over funding for U.S. aviation construction programs will likely not end while Congress is focused on the debt ceiling debate, a Senate transportation leader said indicating a partial airport shutdown could stretch on for weeks.

“There is room for hope but there’s not a lot of room for action,” said New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, who sits on the Senate Appropriations and Transportation committees.
“This problem — as big as it is — is not really getting a lot of attention. I think it’s a subject that will get aired very soon,” he added.

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday introduced a bill to extend funding for airport construction projects and end furloughs of 4,000 Federal Aviation Administration employees, Reuters reports

A temporary authorization for aviation spending ended Friday night and by Saturday morning thousands of contractors were without work. Nearly 90,000 construction workers have lost airport-related jobs, according to the U.S. Transportation Department.

The legislation will likely not find much traction as the political parties fight over spending cuts for rural airports.
“The Senate already has a House-passed extension that it should take up,” said a spokesman for the House Transportation Committee’s Republican chairman, John Mica.

The Republican-controlled House last week passed an extension that cut $12.5 million from rural airports and reduced subsidies for a handful of underserved airports.

The bill met a dead end in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats seeking a straight forward extension of the spending authorization with no cuts.

Without an authorization, the federal government cannot collect $200 million a week in taxes that it uses to fund airport capital works projects.

The Obama administration expects $2.5 billion worth of construction to be put on hold during the shutdown. Air traffic control and most operations are not affected.
“Republicans should stop jeopardizing the jobs of nearly 90,000 American construction workers and penalizing the people who keep our skies safe by holding their job hostage to their ‘my way or the runway’ approach,” said Rep. Nick Rahall, top Democrat on the House Transportation committee.

The Airports Council International, which represents the airport industry, also does not expect an extension to pass Congress until lawmakers hammer out a truce in the contentious dispute on raising the country’s debt limit.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has pushed Congress to approve an extension this week, and on Tuesday he spoke to U.S. mayors about the impact of the partial shutdown.

The council said even a short-term shutdown could have long-term effects for airports. Without the weekly tax collection, the government could be caught short funding future construction. Contracts can also require airports to pay penalties for stalled construction work, driving up the costs.

To keep construction on track, some airports are turning to letters of credit or to commercial paper for financing help.
“In some cases, an airport might be able to cover the short-term impact because they don’t want to turn away the construction crews,” said Deborah McElroy, executive vice president for policy and external affairs for the council. “If this goes longer, they’ll have to look at other sources.”

A spokeswoman for the city of Chicago said on Tuesday that if federal grants were “significantly delayed” for the O’Hare airport modernization project, the city would turn to other funding sources, including bonds, to fill the shortfall.