Senate Democrats tout airport bill as starting point for 2011 jobs agenda

Senate Democrats are touting a long-delayed Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill as the first item on their jobs agenda for 2011.

The bill, sponsored by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), would invest $8.1 billion in capital improvement projects at airports around the country.

The legislation would be paid for by user fees and would not add to the deficit.

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The American Association of Airport Executives estimates the multi-year reauthorization would create or save 280,000 jobs, including 90,000 jobs in the construction and construction supplies industries.

“This is a bill we wanted to complete for years,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in a conference call with reporters.

Reid discussed passing the FAA legislation throughout 2010. It is the same bill that passed the Senate 93-0 last year.

The Senate majority leader said the legislation would protect “hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs,” and called on Congress to expand the nation’s passenger and cargo transportation capacity.

Reid also blasted a proposal by the House Republican Study Committee to eliminate the Essential Air Service program, which provides subsidies to airlines that serve rural and smaller communities.

Congress has passed 17 short-term extensions since the last FAA authorization bill expired in 2007.

The bill would establish deadlines for adopting the Next Generation Air Transportation System, which would allow as many as a third more planes to land at the nation’s busiest hubs.

The U.S. is one of the last industrialized countries in the world to still used ground-based radar systems to direct air traffic.

Chip Barclay, president of the American Association of Airport Executives, joined the call.

The trade association spent $1.6 million lobbying the federal government in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks lobbying and political expenditures.

Barclay said every dollar in the airport improvement program would go toward capital construction and not to fund operations.

Democratic senators argued the expansion of regional airports would fuel local economies, such as in Ely, Nev., which is serviced by Yelland Field.

“One reason it’s not more vibrant is people have trouble getting in and out of Ely,” Reid said.