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Work on McCarran tower halted amid FAA funding flap

Updated Monday, July 25, 2011 | 2:08 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 »

Work on the new air traffic control tower at McCarran International Airport has stopped after Congress failed to pass legislation Friday to fund the Federal Aviation Administration.

Federal officials issued stop-work orders on projects across the country, and nearly 4,000 FAA personnel were furloughed Sunday.

The new control tower at McCarran was to replace the old one, which was built in 1983 and isn’t large enough to meet the airport’s needs as Las Vegas has grown, officials said.

“It’s one of our most 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.”

The FAA broke ground on the tower in May. The tower alone will cost more than $43 million and take two years to build. Together with the equipment required, the project was to cost $99 million when completed in 2014.

But the cost and timeline may change because of the stoppage, although the exact outcome won’t be known until Congress acts and work can continue.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said the delay might make projects costlier as contractors have to shift things around.

“It makes these projects more expensive. It’s a waste of money, which is very unfortunate,” he said.

The contractor on the project is Archer-Western Construction.

Officials said more than 130 constructions workers in California and Nevada were told not to come to work today because of the work stop.

Other stopped projects include under-construction control towers at Palm Springs International Airport and Oakland International Airport in California, and in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Mississippi.

The FAA also is delaying projects scheduled to begin soon, including towers in Ohio and Florida.

Despite the lack of funding, the FAA continues to operate air traffic systems across the nation so the safety of fliers will not be affected, officials said.

But air travelers are being affected, LaHood said. Without the authorization from Congress, the FAA has stopped collecting about $30 million a day in fees and taxes, but the airlines have continued to charge the same prices to passengers. So the airlines get more money while the federal treasury suffers, he said.

“I think it is not fair for them to charge citizens, their customers for a tax,” LaHood said.

The holdup is debate in Congress over two items added to the latest extension of the FAA legislation, he said. The old authorization has been extended nearly 20 times, while Congress waits to draft a comprehensive FAA bill.

But the most recent extension, passed by the House last week, had some additional provisions that are controversial, and Democrats have refused to consider those provisions in the Senate.

The controversial parts of the bill include a labor provision opposed by the White House and funding reduction for the Essential Air Service subsidy to three cities, including Ely. These debates are different than the ongoing argument over the federal debt ceiling.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid blamed Republicans for the shutdown, saying they are refusing to negotiate.

“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. “Their reckless intransigence has not only shut down the FAA, but is threatening Congress’ ability to successfully complete work on the long-term FAA reauthorization that our economy and the livelihoods of thousands depend upon.”

Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Democrat who voted against the bill in the House, also blamed the other party.

“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.

But Rep. Joe Heck, a Republican who voted for the bill, said the fallout is completely the fault of Senate Democrats.

“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.”

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.

As for how long it will take, LaHood said: “We hope they will do it today or certainly in the next few days so people can get back to work.”

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