WASHINGTON — The agreement by the House and Senate on Friday to fund the Federal Aviation Administration for six more weeks makes the status of projects at Louisiana airports foggy because of the lack of a multiyear deal.
Money to pay for FAA operations ran out on July 23, when the two chambers couldn’t agree on certain provisions in the reauthorization legislation. The latest extension is the 21st since 2007 when the last multi-year spending expired.
“Honestly, I’ve lost count,” said Greg Roberts, director of the Lafayette Regional Airport. “It’s a helluva way to run an airport and it’s a helluva way to run a government.”
The Lafayette airport is in the middle of a three-year, $28 million runway improvement project that includes installing safety blocks to keep planes from running off the runways.
The airport has received $10 million for the first phase of the project but the controversy surrounding the FAA reauthorization makes the second and third phases of the project uncertain, Roberts said.
“It really staggers the imagination why there would be this start-stop, start-stop that creates a crisis,” Roberts said. “Most of these projects are major construction projects.”
The shutdown left about 4,000 FAA workers furloughed for the 12 days of the stalemate. The clash was costing the federal government $25 million a day in lost revenue, money from a 7.5 percent passenger ticket tax that funds construction projects at airports across the nation.
The standoff was over provisions that would trim government funded service to smaller and rural airports in addition to language that would make it harder for airline workers to unionize, which Senate Democrats objected to.
That has left airport directors such as Bill Cooksey in the line of fire. Cooksey is the interim director of Shreveport’s two airports, a regional and downtown facility.
The Shreveport airports will rely on federal funding for seven projects ranging from reducing noise coming from the airport to creating a new swipe card security system for airport employees.
“These short-term extensions make it difficult not only for airports in Louisiana but throughout the country,” Cooksey said. “Everybody is scrambling right now. It puts a lot of projects on hold.”
What is particularly frustrating to Roberts is that the federal government has the construction money to deliver to the airports. The tax brings in $10.2 billion to the FAA each year. About 25 percent of that money goes into the FAA $15.5 billion operating budget.
The remainder is used to fund the airport construction projects. Last year, the construction fund ended up with a $770 million surplus.
“You have to have money available to go to bid,” Roberts said. “It’s one thing to authorize it, it’s another thing to appropriate it.”
Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport was able to keep its construction projects going by covering it with available money, said Anthony Marino, director of the airport.
Airports can’t do that long term without a multi-year deal, Marino said.
“It makes it difficult to plan,” Marino said.
And the airport directors worry that if Congress can’t come up with a multi-year extension and the FAA is shut down again next month, times for the completion of construction projects will get even worse, Marino said.
“These contractors, they pull off your job,” Marino said. “They don’t say ‘we’ll be back Monday’, they go to other jobs.”