BLOUNTVILLE — Uncle Sam’s way of helping Tri-Cities Regional Airport with future capital improvements is “stuck in the mud politically,” TCRA Executive Director Patrick Wilson said.
TCRA has a lot riding on Congress’ pending reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP) which provides discretionary grants to local airports for projects to enhance capacity and safety.
At stake is the continued development of TCRA’s southside and its wide-open acreage primed for economic development.
Without AIP grants, major jobs like runway extensions and new taxiways don’t happen unless a windfall of local funds lands in the airport’s lap. TCRA competes for those grants with other airports across the nation.
TCRA is currently attempting to move forward with southside airfield projects not knowing if enough AIP money will be in the FAA’s reauthorization. A reauthorization bill passed in the House in September but still awaits Senate action.
U.S. Rep. David Davis, R-1st, voted against FAA reauthorization.
“I support the modernization of our aging air traffic control infrastructure, but I could not support this version of the FAA reauthorization due to additional sections of the legislation which inappropriately require express carriers to be governed under the National Labor Relations Act,” Davis said of his vote in an e-mail. “This would adversely impact thousands of jobs in the First District, Tennessee, and our nation.”
But another congressman with an interest in TCRA, Democrat Rick Boucher of Southwest Virginia’s Fightin’ Ninth District, voted for FAA reauthorization.
One form of the bill calls for $15.8 billion in AIP funding from 2008 to 2011.
“Airports throughout the country are reaching out trying to move this through,” Wilson told airport commissioners during a recent Airfield Development Committee meeting. “For smaller airports, AIP is extremely important for us to do developments like this. Without AIP dollars there’s no way we could achieve some of these things.”
TCRA’s Airfield Development Committee has recommended the airport do environment assessments and engage in design contracts for a new southside corporate hangar area and taxiway extension. The airport must do an environmental assessment to receive AIP dollars.
Both political and funding issues are in the reauthorization bill. The main funding matter is a proposal to increase the passenger facility charge (PFC) — an expense tacked on to plane tickets and rental car bookings — from $4.50 per passenger to $7. Federal officials feel the increase would lead to “increased tax-exempt financing for airport construction ... and consequently would reduce federal revenues.” PFCs are collected by airports and are not part of the federal budget.
A contentious political battle, meanwhile, has ensued between private plane operators and FAA over reauthorization.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), which represents private plane operators, is continuing its attempt to remove a $25 user fee from FAA reauthorization. The airlines had supported increased fees to help FAA pay for its planned “NextGen” air traffic control system.
Except for the $25 user fee, AOPA said the House and Senate FAA bills are now very similar in how they tax both general aviation and the airlines. AOPA was predicting Congress would pass a short-term FAA reauthorization until the bills can be reconciled.
If Congress approves shorter-term funding in the FAA reauthorization, Wilson told the committee that TCRA may not be able to meet timelines for developing the southside. The southside area has three to four economic development sites on its perimeter.
“That would mean instead of being able to plan for three to four years of AIP funding, what’s being proposed is about a six-month plan for AIP funding,” Wilson said. “At that level we may be very challenged to meet this (development) schedule.”
For more about TCRA, go to www.triflight.com.