Stuck in the middle, airports worry about funding projects

When influential lobbying groups backed by powerful lawmakers take different sides on an issue, it often results in legislative gridlock. It can also create serious problems for third parties stuck in between.

Such is the case for airports, which for much of the last year have been bystanders in a fight over how to pay for a new air traffic control system, a battle that chiefly pits commercial airlines against business jets and other small planes.

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Two Senate committees have also taken different sides on the issue, with the Finance Committee offering a plan favored by business jets and the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee backing a plan supported by airlines. The House, which approved a bill favorable to business jets and smaller planes, has been frustrated with the Senate stalemate.

Airports don’t have a dog in the funding fight, but have seen their proposals for a new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) bill held in limbo as a result.  Now, they face a more serious problem.

At the end of December, Congress did not extend the FAA authority to approve grants for airport improvement projects. Without the authority, airports can’t spend tax dollars targeted toward building runways, parking garages and other projects aimed at improving airports.

For Bruce Carter, director of aviation for the Quad City International Airport, that means two important improvements to a hub airport serving air travelers in Iowa and Illinois could be put on hold. One $3 million project would rehabilitate Quad City’s main runway, while another $2 million project would construct a new taxi runway.

“I’m concerned that we won’t have the funding necessary to get this accomplished,” said Carter, who had hoped that construction would begin on both projects this summer. He has told Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) of the problem.

Why the contract authority for the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program was allowed to lapse when other parts of the FAA were extended is a bit unclear. Some observers think the Senate Commerce Committee may have pulled it in a bid to pressure Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and ranking member Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to negotiate on the FAA reauthorization bill. {mospagebreak}

House Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) also may have consented, some observers say, in the belief that once senators began hearing from local airports worried about the future of important construction projects, they would move on reauthorization.

Oberstar has not made immediate plans to move forward with an extension of contract authority because of the Senate stalemate, according to Jim Berard, a spokesman for the committee. “Right now we think it would be futile to pass legislation the Senate isn’t going to take up,” he said. The lobbying group for airports is pressing Congress to extend the authority as soon as possible by arguing that they risk missing a construction season. One of their hurdles, they say, is that some don’t realize there’s a problem.

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Scott Weaver, senior director of government affairs for Airports Council International-North America, said many Hill staffers don’t realize that airports already have lost the ability to pay for projects. Because the FAA’s taxing authority was extended through the end of February, he said, there’s a feeling on the Hill that the flow of money will continue. But without the contract authority, the airports can’t move forward on projects.

“It’s like having the money in your banking account but not being able to spend it,” said a frustrated Weaver.

Steven Broderick, a press secretary to Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), said Rockefeller is working with members of the Finance Committee to address the problem by the end of the month. The senator recognizes the problem and the fact that airports do not want to have to delay the construction of projects.

At the same time, Broderick did not indicate how any possible extensions would be handled.

Weaver said winning a new FAA reauthorization bill continues to be the group’s top priority. If that proves impossible, Deborah McElroy, an executive vice president for the airport lobby, said the group will push for an extension of contract authority, which would allow grants for construction projects to go forward.

A second hurdle could be put in place even if the contract authority is extended. At the end of February, the FAA’s authority to collect excise taxes will expire. If that authority is not extended, the FAA has indicated it will not approve the funding of grants regardless of whether Congress extends the granting authority.

Because the taxing authority is a revenue raiser, it is unclear whether Congress would extend it before the end of February or wait until it needs the revenue to pay for some other expense. The FAA last week sent a letter to Congress urging it to move forward on reauthorization and noting that both the taxing authority and contract authority are close to lapsing.