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Impasse delays airport projects

Congress yet to OK funding for FAA

By Katie Johnston
Globe Staff / August 4, 2011

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Congress’s failure to pass legislation reauthorizing certain funding for the Federal Aviation Administration has put nearly 100 FAA employees in Massachusetts and Connecticut out of work, halted at least $8 million worth of aviation-related projects underway in New England, and delayed tens of millions of dollars in planned improvements at several regional airports.

At Portland International Jetport in Maine, air traffic controllers have to run up and down four flights of stairs in the tower after an elevator renovation project was stopped midway. At T.F. Green Airport in Rhode Island, officials recently submitted an environmental impact statement for $400 million worth of airport improvements that have been in the works for more than a decade. But they can’t get final approval because employees in charge of issuing the decision have been put on furlough.

At Nashua Municipal Airport in New Hampshire, construction of a new $16 million runway to meet safety requirements has been put on hold until federal funding becomes available again.

“We’re waiting right now for the funding to be released,’’ said Royce Rankin, manager of the Nashua airport. “I’m certainly not going to hold my breath.’’

There hasn’t been a major impact at Boston Logan International Airport, although officials can’t reach furloughed FAA engineers for advice on a runway safety project. They also anticipate problems funding the next phase of the runway project if the partial shutdown drags on for too long.

Nationwide, $10.5 billion worth of projects have been stopped and nearly 4,000 workers furloughed since Congress failed to agree by July 22 on legislation that reauthorizes the agency’s budget and capital spending plans, as well as its power to collect airline ticket taxes that help fund operations. The impasse is costing the federal government $30 million a day.

Airfield operations and employees critical to safety, including air traffic controllers, are not affected.

Lawmakers left Washington for the August recess earlier this week without resolving disputes over union organizing and subsidies for air service to rural airports that led to the partial shutdown. President Obama yesterday called for Congress to resolve the standoff quickly.

“Don’t put the livelihoods of thousands of people at risk, don’t put projects at risk,’’ he said, “ and don’t let $1 billion, at a time when we’re scrambling for every dollar we can, get off the table because Congress did not act.’’

Congress isn’t scheduled to return to session until September. But it is possible for Congress to pass those bills by unanimous consent without lawmakers coming back into session, if the leaders of both parties agree, Democrats said.

About half the area’s 98 furloughed employees work at the FAA’s New England headquarters in Burlington as engineers, managers, grant administrators, and support staff. Another 42 work at the Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center in Nashua, N.H.

Local construction projects that have been cut off include work on approach path indicator lights at the Barnstable Municipal Airport in Hyannis and fire alarm upgrades at the air traffic control tower at T.F. Green in Warwick, R.I.

The Portland airport’s $75 million terminal expansion is not affected by the FAA shutdown, but the elevator-work stoppage in the control tower, lightheartedly referred to as a “get-in-shape program’’ by airport officials, is forcing air traffic controllers to take the stairs.

In Massachusetts, $17 million in FAA grants for runway safety, taxiway, and noise-mitigation projects are on hold at municipal airports in Pittsfield, Westfield, Plymouth, and New Bedford, among others.

If the FAA isn’t able to quickly fund these and other projects in the next few weeks, the New England winter could delay them until next year, said Chris Willenborg, administrator of the aeronautics division for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

Construction companies are also feeling the pinch. Across the nation, an estimated 70,000 government contractors are out of work.

The shutdown is costing Security Construction Services in Hudson $10,000 a week in overhead costs such as equipment and trailer rentals as it waits for the FAA to reinstate funding for a $4.6 million renovation at the Air Route Traffic Control Center in Nashua, N.H. The company also hasn’t been paid for nearly $700,000 worth of work completed in June and July, said owner Janet Ceddia.

“They’ve got jobs in jeopardy, they’ve got businesses in jeopardy,’’ Ceddia said of Congress. “If their mission is to put people back to work, their efforts to date are exactly counter to what their mission needs to be.’’

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com.