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Strife over rural Nevada airport halts projects at McCarran

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An artist’s illustration shows the new $99 million Federal Aviation Administration air traffic control facility that will be built at McCarran International Airport. The facility is expected to be operational in early 2015.

Updated Wednesday, July 27, 2011 | 9:13 p.m.

FAA Facility Groundbreaking

Randy Babbitt, left, Federal Aviation Administration administrator, and Sen. Harry Reid chat before a groundbreaking for a new $99 million FAA air traffic control facility at McCarran International Airport Tuesday, May 31, 2011. The facility is expected to be operational in early 2015. Launch slideshow »

Construction workers on Tuesday were supposed to erect a crane to help build a 352-foot air traffic control tower at McCarran International Airport.

And other workers were scheduled to be installing lights along a closed runway so it could return to service in a few weeks.

But both projects at McCarran — the eighth busiest airport in the nation — have been shut down, the victim of a Capitol Hill debate primarily over White Pine County Airport in Ely, the most rural commercial airport in the country.

At issue is whether to reduce the amount of federal subsidies awarded to airlines serving rural airports in order to help them stay in business and on the nation’s transportation grid.

The Ely airport is receiving the most attention in the political squabble in Congress because the small airline that serves White Pine County would have its subsidy slashed to a quarter of what it is now. That proposal was contained in a bill to extend funding for the Federal Aviation Administration.

The only commercial airline that flies into Ely, Great Lakes Airlines, had been receiving $3,720 per passenger in government subsidies. The bill, sponsored by House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., would cut that to $1,000 per passenger.

Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, oppose the cut and the Senate and House were unable to reach an agreement to fund the FAA by the Friday deadline.

Most of the Nevada delegation opposes the subsidy cut that is fueling the standoff, including both of the state’s Senate candidates, Democrat Rep. Shelley Berkley and Republican Sen. Dean Heller.

“Republicans have now forced the FAA to suspend construction on the new McCarran tower, and that means the men and women working on this project will not be bringing home a paycheck to support their families,” Berkley said in a statement.

Heller said he would support Reid and vote for a “clean” FAA bill — one without the cut to Ely’s service.

“I believe Mica had good intentions, I’m not going to criticize him,” Heller said. “But he has no idea how difficult things and times are in Nevada right now. These are flights back and forth from Las Vegas to Ely, and specifically, I believe that the prison out there in Ely, their medical care comes from Las Vegas. So in order to get the essential medical care to that prison, that flight needs to occur.”

Reid has been trying to get an FAA extension bill through Congress for months now: The Senate passed its version in February.

“Despite the thousands of workers furloughed and vital job-creating construction projects halted in Nevada and throughout the country, House Republicans are nowhere to be found — refusing to come back to the negotiating table after pulling yet another cheap political stunt at the expense of rural Americans,” he said in a statement.

But not all of Nevada’s representatives saw the standoff as a moment to band together to safeguard the interests of the whole state.

Nevada Rep. Joe Heck, whose district includes parts of Las Vegas but is far from Ely, laid the blame exclusively on Democrats for holding up the process by insisting on the version that they voted for — even though, his office points out, it contains an even sharper shuttering of Ely by phasing out any airport that doesn't see an average of ten passengers or more per day. Ely sees, on average, about three.

“I voted for this bill to protect the jobs of Nevadans working on McCarran Airport’s new traffic control tower. Unfortunately, the same day it was reported that Clark County’s unemployment rose from 12.4 percent to 13.8 percent, the Senate recessed without considering the FAA funding extension,” Heck said in a statement. “Because of the Senate’s decision, Nevadans working on McCarran’s new traffic control tower will suffer.”

Indeed, over the weekend nearly 4,000 FAA employees across the country were furloughed, causing 150 airport projects to be put on hold for lack of FAA oversight.

Only one of those employees was based in Nevada — the one who oversees FAA construction projects at McCarran. So dozens of construction workers are without work this week.

Air traffic controllers and other employees needed to keep planes flying safely weren’t furloughed and projects administered by the airport itself, such as the construction of Terminal 3 and the C Gate improvements, are not affected.

The FAA broke ground for the new control tower at the end of May. The old tower, built in 1983, is too small to house the air traffic controllers needed as McCarran has grown. It also has a blind spot that makes it difficult to monitor the whole airport.

“It’s one of our more high-priority, important tower projects and … people are not working on that project today,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a conference call with reporters Monday. “It’s a critical, critical project for our whole air traffic control system.”

About 40 to 50 workers were scheduled to be on the project this week, according to project manager Sasha Milosavljevich from Archer Western Construction.

The $43.4 million contract to build the tower could rise since it is costing the contractor about $8,500 per day in equipment rental and overhead costs during the shutdown, Milosavljevich said.

The runway lighting project is two-thirds done. The last of the three runways getting the lights was closed for the work, which was scheduled to be done Aug. 14.

Airport and FAA officials met Tuesday to discuss reopening the runway without the new lights, which would have improved safety for aircraft and vehicles on the ground when crossing the runways.

The lights have already been installed on two runways, but they won’t be turned on until the third runway is done.

The project was part of a $214 million contract for Science Applications International to install lights at 13 airports. FAA officials weren’t sure Tuesday how much the Las Vegas portion cost because anybody who would know had been furloughed.

“The economy has devastated construction in Las Vegas in the last couple years and we were really excited to get this going,” said Darren Enns, the secretary-treasurer of the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council. “It’s disheartening we’re in this position now and our people have to stay home while Congress works this out.”

LaHood, a Republican who served in the House for 14 years before taking over the transportation department for President Barack Obama, asked that Congress put its differences aside to pass a funding bill immediately and debate the controversial provisions later.

“They should save the debate for a day when they have time to debate essential air service and the labor provision,” he said.

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