Partial FAA shutdown puts airport work in jeopardy

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PITTSFIELD -- Work on the expansion of Pittsfield Municipal Airport could grind to a halt if Congress doesn't reach an agreement to end the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Because of apparently irreconcilable partisan differences, lawmakers were unable to pass the bill renewing the FAA's operating authority. That means the flow of federal funds already authorized for the city's airport project will be cut off, according to FAA spokesman Jim Peters.

"Until we get a reauthorization from Congress, that money will stay in the bank," said Peters.

Airport officials were expecting another $2 million from the FAA over the next several months for the first phase of the project. Ultimately, the expansion will extend the runway and is expected to increase jet traffic at the airport by 250 to 350 planes a year.

Now city leaders, who just learned of the setback on Wednesday, have been left wondering if they can float the project until Congress reaches an agreement.

Quick resolution unlikely

Reports indicate that a quick deal from lawmakers to end the shutdown is unlikely.

Republican senators say they intend to continue to block legislation to restore FAA's operating authority unless Democrats give ground on Republican proposals to cut air service subsidies to rural communities and to make it more difficult for airline workers to unionize.

Democrats have insisted that Republicans drop the labor provision before they will negotiate on a handful of other contentious issues in the long-term funding plan, including rural air service subsidies.

The impasse has forced the FAA to furlough nearly 4,000 workers, to issue stop-work orders on hundreds of major projects, and to stop the processing of about $2.5 billion in airport construction grants.

Kerry, Olver blame House Republicans

Both Sen. John Kerry and Rep. John Olver, both Massachusetts Democrats, said in separate statements they were monitoring the situation. They said they were doing everything they could to advocate for the FAA reauthorization as soon as possible.

"I hate seeing Pittsfield getting hurt by House Republicans who are using FAA money as leverage to attack workers," said Kerry.

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Olver also blamed Republicans for Congress' failure to reauthorize the FAA.

"The failure to reauthorize the FAA is just another example of House Republican's all-or-nothing strategy," he said.

Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., didn't return calls for comment on Wednesday.

The Pittsfield Airport expansion began in October, the first phase of the project clears trees and restores wetlands. It's expected to cost $6.5 million, $4 million of which is coming from the FAA's construction program.

Airport manager Mark Germanowski said the project is about half finished. He said he was expecting to receive about $2 million in reimbursements from the FAA over the next several months.

Germanowski is hopeful that, if Congress resolves their differences soon, the shutdown won't impact the Pittsfield project at all.

"My intuition is it can't last that long, there are just too many ramifications, and they're all bad," he said.

Mayor James M. Ruberto wasn't available for comment, but his office indicated city leaders were planning to hold a meeting on the issue today.

If Congress doesn't reach an agreement soon, any number of scenarios could play out in Pittsfield:

n The city could push ahead with the project, temporarily bankrolling construction until the FAA is reauthorized and reimbursements can be made.

n If the city can't afford to finance the project itself, it could halt the project.

n The FAA could issue a stop-work order, putting the project on a forced hiatus regardless of what the city decides to do. The agency's spokesman said that, since engineers who oversee construction projects are on furlough, a stop-work order is entirely plausible in this case.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


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