Congressional fight puts Houston airport project on hold

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by Doug Miller / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on July 26, 2011 at 1:56 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jul 26 at 1:57 PM

HOUSTON—A major upgrade of Houston’s air traffic control system has been indefinitely postponed and an undetermined number of workers have been furloughed as a direct result of a congressional stalemate over the funding of the FAA.

The new air traffic control facility—called Terminal Radar Approach Control, or TRACON -- is about two-thirds completed. But after Congress failed to pass a bill funding the FAA, the $25-million project at Bush Intercontinental Airport was put on hold. 

Meanwhile, the city government is also spending local airport system money to continue a $43-million runway expansion project previously bankrolled by federal funds. Houston city officials warn they can’t continue underwriting the project indefinitely. 

"We seem to be being hijacked by a completely ego-driven and frankly ridiculous fight in Washington," said Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who joined top federal aviation officials in a conference call condemning congressional inaction on the FAA bill.

The TRACON project is a long-anticipated effort to replace an aging facility controlling air traffic throughout the Houston area. The current facility floods during heavy rains, sometimes trapping air traffic controllers in their building. Now the construction project has—at least temporarily—become a casualty of a political squabble in a Congress that has failed to pass what’s usually a routine funding bill.

The FAA has furloughed about 4,000 employees and stopped work on airport projects across the nation. Here in Texas, federal aviation officials say, the impasse has blocked the FAA from issuing $33 million in grant money to local aviation authorities.

"There is no excuse for Congress failing to pass an FAA bill," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "It’s crucial to our economy."

"This is a tough economy," Parker said. "And there are a lot of folks that depend on these jobs."

Federal aviation officials hope to begin using Houston’s new air traffic facility in 2013, but they say the work-stoppage now throws that timetable into doubt. 

"It appears that this discussion may be something of a proxy for a larger debate on how we fund these major airport projects in the future," Parker said.

KHOU 11 News reported last week that the FAA furloughs are also preventing it from collecting aviation fees. Passengers are still basically paying those fees when they buy their tickets from most of the airlines, but almost all of the airlines are pocketing the money as profits.

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