BLOUNTVILLE — Congress’ inability to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration has been holding up the biggest federal grant ever to be awarded to Tri-Cities Regional Airport, TCRA Executive Director Patrick Wilson says.
The U.S. Senate on Friday approved a short-term bill to resolve a protracted dispute between Democrats and Republicans over FAA reauthorization, which had passed in the House last month.
Since Congress allowed the FAA’s last extension to expire on July 22, dozens of airport construction projects across the country were issued “stop work orders,” and nearly 4,000 FAA employees were furloughed. Ticket tax revenues going to the federal government also remained uncollected.
The 258 stop work orders affected $10.5 billion worth of airport projects nationwide, according to the FAA.
But the congressional dispute over the FAA did not impact TCRA’s commercial or general aviation flight operations because air traffic controllers and other essential personnel were on the job.
“Our biggest impact is what (the dispute) has done to our development program and grant process, at least up to this time,” Wilson said.
TCRA, said Wilson, has been working for three years to compete for an FAA discretionary grant to extend the last phase of a south side taxiway.
The extension of that taxiway, called “Taxiway Romeo,” would allow aircraft to go around and not cross the main runway.
It’s a safety consideration TCRA has wanted for years, and would include relocating nearby Hamilton Road.
“Over the last year we have done the design on that, bid the project and have a bid in hand,” Wilson said of the taxiway extension. “We submitted a grant application to the FAA — about a $10.5 million total project — about a week before the shutdown, and now that’s up in the air. We were hoping to be awarded that grant by now. ... That would be the single biggest grant project we’ve ever done at the airport.”
TCRA had also applied for another federal grant to buy new snow removal equipment.
“We could get it before the winter comes, but without it, that will be one less piece of equipment we will have,” Wilson added.
Friday’s Senate vote will allow Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to issue federal grants through Sept. 16.
Without a reauthorization, the FAA said it would be unable to get another $2.5 billion out the door for airport projects in all 50 states.
U.S. Rep. Phil Roe said the FAA reauthorization was being held up because of a $16.5 million “Essential Air Service” (EAS) program for rural airports. TCRA is not in the EAS program.
Federal subsidies go to airlines serving airports in the EAS program. The House-passed version of FAA reauthorization would limit service to airports located at least 90 miles from a large hub airport, but it also included a provision to allow LaHood to continue subsidized service to the rural airports if he decides it’s necessary.
“I voted for it. ... I know it’s a problem, but the House has done its job,” Roe said of the House bill reauthorizing the FAA. U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., also voted for the House bill.
Wilson said EAS was born when the airlines were deregulated in the late 1970s.
“For some markets, Congress wanted to ensure there was air service to small communities, but the number of those communities has slowly decreased,” he explained.
For more information, go to www.thomas.gov . The FAA reauthorization bill is H.R. 2553.