August 4, 2011 in City

FAA dispute jeopardizes airport projects in Spokane, CdA

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Associated Press photo

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., sounds off Wednesday in Washington about the FAA bill. At right is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
(Full-size photo)

Inland Northwest airports may have major construction projects knocked off track by a congressional fight over the Federal Aviation Administration.

A $3.3 million grant to finish a runway reconstruction at Spokane International Airport and a nearly $1 million grant for a building at Coeur d’Alene’s airport are in the bill that is stalled because of disagreements between House Republicans and Senate Democrats.

The grants aren’t part of the dispute, which primarily involves subsidies to rural airports and collective bargaining rights. But until the bill passes, the money can’t be released and many FAA workers other than air traffic controllers are on furlough.

Among the furloughed workers are those who check, calibrate and certify newly installed instruments at Spokane International that allow planes to land in bad weather, said Larry Krauter, executive director of the airport. They were scheduled to be in Spokane for one week starting next Monday, to work on instruments installed as part of a $25 million runway improvement and extension project. The airport hasn’t found anyone yet at FAA headquarters in Washington, D.C., who can tell them how or when that work will be rescheduled.

If the delay lasts long enough, the airport could miss the window for approval of the new instrument systems before bad weather sets in.

“As we get into fall weather with significant fog, we could have to divert or delay flights, or cancel them” in situations that require pilots to use instruments to land because they can’t see the runway, Krauter said.

The final stage of the improvement involves a $3.3 million project to level 3,000 feet of runway. That was to be covered by a grant from the Aviation Trust Fund, which is supported by airline ticket taxes, but until the bill passes airlines no longer have authority to collect the tax, and grants from the fund are frozen.

“Funding for the grants is not at the core of the debate, but it’s part of the bill. It’s along for the ride,” Krauter said.

Spokane International has enough money from previous grants to keep paying contractors until early September. After that, it may have to raise landing fees to keep construction going.

Coeur d’Alene Airport Director Greg Delavan said that facility has approval for a grant to build a specially designed structure for its air rescue and firefighting truck, which is now housed in the maintenance shop. That shop is too far away from the runway, Delavan said. “We need it to be three minutes away.”

Airport workers currently bring the truck out of the shop and park it near the flight line whenever it might be needed.

The airport has other grants pending, including one for a master plan being developed. But until the bill passes releasing the grants, the airport can’t sign contracts, Delavan said.

“We’re able to manage through our problems so it’s not going to be devastating to our services,” he said. “But it’s a terrible shame they’re bickering over unrelated issues.”


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