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Aviation shutdown leaves workers, projects on idle

Posted: August 2, 2011 - 8:00am  |  Updated: August 2, 2011 - 9:00am

A battle over union voting rules with Essential Air Service being used as a bargaining chip by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives led to a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration July 23.

More than 4,000 FAA employees were furloughed, including 79 in Alaska.

Meanwhile, two state projects have been halted after the most recent reauthorization of the agency expired when Congress couldn’t agree on an extension and President Barack Obama threatened to veto the bill based on provisions included in the House version.

The shutdown costs the FAA $30 million per day in lost revenue from ticket and fuel surcharges; about $2.5 billion in federal infrastructure funding was put on hold and idled thousands of workers nationally in the beleaguered construction sector.

The furloughed workers in Alaska and around the nation work in the facilities and equipment, and airport improvement project departments for the FAA.

Associated General Contractors of America estimates the shutdown could put at risk 24,000 construction jobs, 11,000 support and supply sector jobs, and as many as 35,000 jobs in the broader economy.

As of July 27, stop work orders had been issued in Alaska by the FAA for an $843,816 runway lighting and rehabilitation project in Bethel and for a $563,000 seismic modernization contract for the air traffic control tower at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. The FAA is spending $20 million to upgrade air traffic control towers in earthquake-prone areas.

Ahtna Inc., an Alaska Native regional corporation, was performing the Bethel project; the seismic work at the Anchorage airport was being done by Jacobs Engineering of Pasadena, Calif. Jacobs Engineering has had at least $370 million in work stopped so far by the FAA shutdown.

The sticking point on paper between the House and Senate versions is the end of subsidies to airlines serving rural airports under Essential Air Service, or EAS, by eliminating airports within 90 miles of a major hub or regional airport and capping passenger subsidies at $1,000. Alaska was exempted from these proposed restrictions to EAS.

While the end of EAS subsidies was touted at saving $400 million over 10 years, the underlying goal for House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., is to force concessions from the Democrat majority in the Senate on regulations revised in 2010 that would make it easier for airline employees to unionize.

The National Mediation Board, which governs rail and aviation employees, overhauled union election rules by requiring a majority of votes to form a union rather than previous interpretations of the law that required a majority of all employees to approve a union. Under the previous rules, any employee who didn’t vote was counted as a “no.”

Mica’s late-hour addition to the FAA reauthorization bill would have ended EAS passenger subsidies to five airports in West Virginia, home to Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Jay Rockefeller, as well as the Ely airport in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s home state of Nevada.

It would eliminate completely the Morgantown, W.V., airport and Ely from qualifying for EAS based on the new 90-mile limit. Rockefeller was unable to secure a vote on a “clean” FAA extension and send it to the House before Congress adjourned July 22.

Reid has said the House bill will not be taken up in the Senate. If the Senate can send a “clean” version to the House, the bill would need Republican leadership to bring it to the floor for a vote.

Congress has passed 20 short-term FAA reauthorizations since 2007, or one about every three months.

Alaska impacts

Phase 2 of a $66 million runway rehabilitation and extension project at the Anchorage airport is proceeding as scheduled, as is a $6 million resurfacing project on the apron at Concourse A.

The runway project, which received $34 million for Phase 1 in 2010 and $32 million in 2011, won’t be impacted unless there is a significant change to the project and a prolonged shutdown prevents the FAA from authorizing a change order.

Other projects proceeding with FAA funding around the state would be subject to the same predicament if a change order were needed. Projects under way in Kodiak, King Salmon, Kotzebue, Gustavus, Ouzinkie and Port Lyons, among others, would be impacted if change orders were needed but could not be authorized by the FAA.

Facing an immediate deadline is the Deadhorse Airport rehabilitation project, which could be delayed until 2013 if it doesn’t get authorization by Aug. 15.

With the end of the fiscal year looming, a shutdown lasting longer than a couple weeks would affect Alaska projects.

“Anything scheduled to bid or pending a bid can be immediately impacted,” said Roger Maggard, the airport development manager for state aviation at the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

Bids are now being taken for a $5 million to $10 million project to improve the runway safety area in Cold Bay. If the shutdown prevents awarding a bid and securing a grant before the end of the federal fiscal year Sept. 30, the state would need to seek funding for it in fiscal year 2012.

A similar scenario exists for a $2.6 million rehabilitation, paving and lighting project in Homer. The project is not ready to advertise for bids, and like Cold Bay, if the grant is not awarded in fiscal year 2011 it could impact available funding for 2012.

“There’s only so much water in the glass,” said Butch Douthit, design section chief for the central region of the state DOT. “Anything that slips into next year displaces our plans for next year. There are ripple effects for any delay.”

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