TxDOT to cover FAA funding gap at RGV airports
Steve Clark | The Brownsville Herald | Posted: Friday, March 29, 2013 8:56 am
Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport and 12 other Texas airports facing the loss of Federal Aviation Administration funding got welcome news Thursday from the Texas Department of Transportation.
TxDOT announced that it intends to pay the cost of control tower operations at those airports, which the FAA last week announced would lose federal funding due to budget cuts under sequestration.
The Greater Brownsville Incentives Corp. came to the local airport’s rescue earlier this week, committing to pay 50 percent of air traffic controllers’ salaries through Sept. 30. Mayor Tony Martinez said he expected city commissioners to agree to cover the other half from the general fund.
TxDOT spokeswoman Veronica Beyer said her agency had taken this “extraordinary measure” at the urging of the governor’s office to maintain safe operations at the 13 airports. The Texas Transportation Commission still has to approve the action and will vote on it next week.
“We’re going to do it for at least 90 days and then we’re going to re-evaluate everything,” Beyer said.
TxDOT estimates the yearly cost of paying to keep the towers open at around $7 million. The 13 airports on the FAA list have “contract towers,” meaning the controllers who staff them aren’t FAA employees but rather private employees whose salaries are paid by the FAA.
In all, 149 contract tower airports around the country are scheduled to lose their funding over a phased, four-week period beginning April 7, according to the FAA.
Texas Transportation Commissioner Fred Underwood said in a statement that the agency was compelled to act quickly to protect air travelers and business aircraft operating at the 13 Texas airports. He said safety is the primary reason for the move, although TxDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson noted that economic development plays a part, as well.
“Flying is an integral part of commerce in Texas,” Wilson said. “Local communities are counting on these airports to remain open for continued economic success.”
Beyer said the money to pay tower operations would come from a TxDOT fund reserved for aviation activities in the state.
Larry Brown, director of aviation at Brownsville’s airport, said he’s grateful for the efforts of the governor and TxDOT on behalf of the targeted airports, adding that “we’re looking forward to a longer-term solution to the problem” as well.
Whether towers at Brownsville and the other airports ever see FAA funding again is anybody’s guess, Brown said.
“I don’t think anybody knows the answer yet,” he said. “We’ve got to just keep plugging away to make sure the skies are safe.”