A growing number of lawmakers are urging to consider alternatives to pulling funding for 149 contract towers.
FAA plans to eliminate funding for the towers as part of its effort to slash $637 million from the remainder of its fiscal 2013 budget, but on April 5 postponed the funding cutoff date until June 15.
FAA, which originally planned to cease funding beginning this week for an initial group of two dozen towers, cited a need to work with user groups and airports to facilitate a smooth transition to either closing the towers or transferring the operations to local and/or private entities. The agency also acknowledged it was facing numerous lawsuits over its decision to halt funding for 60% of the contract tower program and said it needed the time to “resolve multiple legal challenges.”
But the decision to delay the funding end date came a day after a delegation of Maryland lawmakers had appealed to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to postpone the closures. Four Maryland lawmakers—including Senate Appropriations Chairman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.)—sent a letter April 4 urging LaHood to hold off on closing the towers until President Barack Obama and Congress could reach an “outcome” on sequestration negotiations. The lawmakers, also including Sen. Ben Cardin (D), Rep. D.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D), and Rep. John Delaney (D), noted the tower closures would “jeopardize the economic security” of the affected communities.
Mikulski called the delay “a hard-fought, important step in ensuring Maryland’s safety and economic security.” Mikulski previously had tried to include a provision in the government-wide, short-term funding continuing resolution that would provide agencies the flexibility to shift funds and prevent decisions such as the tower closures.
But Senate senior leadership blocked a number of provisions such as that, citing concerns that they could stall the bill. The Senate also rebuffed Sen. Jerry Moran’s (R-Kan.) measure to limit the cuts that FAA could make to the program. Moran’s measure, which was co-sponsored by more than one-quarter of the Senate, also would have provided FAA more funding flexibility to help pay for the towers.
Moran is drafting a bill with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) that would prohibit FAA from closing any tower, including FAA-operated towers. The bill is expected to be formally introduced this week.
“While airports and air travelers across the country are breathing a sigh of relief, the’s decision to delay the closing of air traffic control towers is not a solution,” Moran says.
While his amendment was unsuccessful, he noted it gathered a bipartisan coalition in the Senate that was willing to fight to keep them open. “Closing control towers is equivalent to removing stoplights and stop signs from our roads, and there is no reason they should be disproportionately targeted for an arbitrary and unfair 75 percent cut,” he says.
House aviation subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and Senate aviation subcommittee ranking member John Thune (R-S.D.) had previously written LaHood, questioning the decision to cut funding from the contract tower program rather than from other areas of the budget. They also asked for a detailed justification for each tower closure decision.
Likewise, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) wrote LaHood questioning FAA’s plans for both federal and contract towers. “Rather than make this ‘very tough decision,’ I urge DOT to address cost overruns and poor management practices,” he says.