By Andrew Jensen
Alaska Journal of Commerce
Update: This story has been modified from the version in our print edition that went to press Aug. 3 to reflect the end of the FAA shutdown Aug. 5.
After nearly every flight at one of the busiest airports in Alaska, maintenance crews check for displaced pavement and other debris.
They would have been patching the runway at Deadhorse Airport until 2013 without the end of a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration that ended Aug. 5.
Now that the FAA is set to re-open Aug. 8, state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities Statewide Aviation Director Roger Maggard anticipates a quick approval for the project.
"The FAA was ready to give us the grant right before they were furloughed,"
Maggard said Aug. 5.
The $21 million project to repave the runway serving Prudhoe Bay and the Alaska oil industry was one of hundreds of projects around the country on hold as the U.S. House and Senate fought over rural airport subsidies and union voting rules.
After Congress made an 11th-hour deal to raise the national debt limit, the House left Washington, D.C., without a resolution to the FAA shutdown that led to the furlough of 4,000 workers, including 79 in Alaska, and idled as many as 35,000 construction workers performing airport improvement projects funded by federal grants.
Using a parliamentary maneuver that required just two senators for unanimous consent, the Senate adopted the House version of a short-term reauthorization for the FAA to end the shutdown.
The timing for the Deadhorse project required the release of grant funding by early August in order to complete work needed for the taxiway to serve as a temporary runway.
Runway lights, approach lights and GPS instrumentation all needed to be in place on the taxiway parallel to the main runway no later than Oct. 1, which is the last day a special FAA aircraft could make it to Deadhorse for a flight check.
Without the grant funding available, the taxiway wouldn't have been ready by Oct. 1 and the flight coordinates couldn't be published by the FAA in time for the 2012 construction season.
Ryan Anderson, design chief for the Northern Region of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, said it will take an entire summer to repave the runway and work had to begin by May 31, 2012.
If the temporary runway wasn't available in 2012, the soonest the main runway could be repaved was 2013.
Sen. Mark Begich called the situation "outrageous" Aug. 1.
"I am pleased that an agreement was reached which will put 4,000 furloughed employees back to work." Begich said in a statement Aug. 4. "It will also get millions of dollars worth of airport construction projects, employing 70,000 construction workers, back on track."
Other projects in Alaska stopped mid-stream during the shutdown will be able to resume.
Stop work orders were issued by the FAA for an $843,816 runway lighting and rehabilitation project in Bethel and for a $563,000 seismic modernization contract for the air traffic control tower at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage. The FAA is spending $20 million to upgrade air traffic control towers in earthquake prone areas.
Ahtna Inc., an Alaska Native regional corporation, is performing the Bethel project; the seismic work at Stevens Airport is being done by Jacobs Engineering of Pasadena, Calif.
Because the FAA couldn't collect passenger taxes and fuel charges during the shutdown, the agency lost out on $30 million per day in revenue, which will add up to some $350 million from the time it shut down July 22 until Aug. 8. That is almost as much as the $400 million in savings over 10 years from the proposed cuts to essential air service, or EAS, subsidies to rural airports.
The lost revenue will also bleed the trust fund that pays for projects like Deadhorse, and by displacing funding from fiscal year 2011 to 2012 or beyond, other scheduled projects figure to delay or lose out on grants.
Bids will be taken for three weeks starting Aug. 17 for a $5 million to $10 million project to improve the runway safety area at Cold Bay. Maggard said he believes the state can get FAA funding this fiscal year for the Cold Bay project.
A similar scenario exists for a $2.6 million rehabilitation, paving and lighting project in Homer. The project is almost ready to advertise for bids, but the state needs authorization from the FAA to post the contract. Maggard said the state will coordinate with the FAA on advertising the project, and that it would "probably" try to secure a grant this fiscal year.
Rep. Don Young said Aug. 2 the Senate could end the shutdown by passing the House version of the bill, a solution that ended up being adopted two days later to accept the last-minute rider attached by Mica targeting EAS subsidies that would have affected airports in Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Jay Rockefeller's home state of West Virginia.
Mica inserted the cuts in an effort to force concessions from the Democrat majority in the Senate on regulations revised in 2010 that would make it easier for airline employees to unionize.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the dispute got "personal" between Mica and Rockefeller with the FAA caught in the middle.
This is the 21st short-term FAA reauthorization passed since 2007. The latest is good through Sept. 16, two weeks before the end of the fiscal year.
Where the FAA situation ranks in terms of priorities for the Congress when it returns remains to be seen — especially with the continuing resolution funding the government set to expire at the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30 and setting the stage for more budget brinksmanship.
Young noted that Congress hasn't actually completed its budget work for 10 years and Murkowski said Washington, D.C., needs to clean up its act.
"I think it speaks to the fact that we have got to figure out how we return to regular business around the Senate and getting back to ensuring that a budget is introduced so we can operate off it, and ensuring the appropriations committee is able to do the work it needs to do," she said. "We have seen far to clearly how a series of continuing resolutions, year after year after year, hurts us as a nation. It doesn't allow for efficiency.
"It is just not the way to be doing business."
Republished with the permission of the Alaska Journal of Commerce. Andrew Jensen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.