Latest D.C. stalemate threatens S.F. runway

An $8 million capital improvement plan at Sioux Falls Regional Airport could be delayed a year because of the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Airport Executive Director Dan Letellier said federal grant money for a large-scale runway intersection replacement project needs to be secured by Oct. 1 for the project to go to bid and work to start next August. That’s becoming “more doubtful,” Letellier said, since more than 4,000 FAA workers have been furloughed, leaving no one to answer calls or distribute grant money.

“For us, it’s a big uncertainty,” he said Wednesday. “At this point, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens when they are back to work.”

The Obama administration has urged Congress to end the partial shutdown of the FAA, which has been paralyzed for almost two weeks because of a partisan standoff over union organization and air service to rural communities.

Nationally, more than 200 construction projects have been halted, leaving 70,000 construction workers jobless. The country also stands to lose $1 billion in tax revenue from airline ticket taxes that can’t be collected during the shutdown.

“So this is a lose-lose-lose situation,” President Obama said.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican, also urged Congress to return from its just-started break to resolve the partisan standoff behind the shutdown, which began July 23.

In South Dakota, the partial shutdown has put two planning engineers out of work, said Tony Molinaro, FAA spokesman for the Great Lakes Region out of Chicago. Air traffic controllers remain on the job, and LaHood has vowed that air safety won’t be compromised. In Sioux Falls, the control tower is staffed seven days a week, from 5 a.m. to midnight, Letellier said.

In the short term, day-to-day operations have not been affected by the shutdown, and most passengers have not been affected, Letellier said. The bigger problem is the long-term consequences and the uncertainty that comes with large-scale projects across the country being halted, especially in northern states, where it’s crucial to complete projects during the warmer months, Letellier said.

Another question is how $1 billion in revenue losses will affect dollars allotted to airports such as Sioux Falls.

“It’s unusual that the whole government agency that’s been established to monitor and oversee commercial air service in the country doesn’t have the money to operate,” Letellier said. “It’s odd.”

While the ongoing concourse remodel and parking lot renovations in Sioux Falls are self-funded by the airport, officials here still hope to get federal grant money for a more than $1 million runway repair and touchdown zone light project that’s set to begin later this month.

Letellier said the airport was promised that the money would be here by the end of August or early September, and it plans to begin the project even if the partial shutdown continues.

South Dakota is eligible for $2.1 million in FAA money, but there’s no way to gain access to it, Molinaro said.

Letellier’s biggest question is what will come of the $8 million capital improvement project to replace the 30-year-old concrete between the two primary runways.

“It’s very necessary repairs. We’re going to make sure the runways are safe,” Letellier said. “Bottom line, that’s what our primary purpose is, to make sure the airport is safe and usable for all the carriers.”

The extensive repairs will require the airport to close for three consecutive weekends for contractors to work 24 hours a day, which is why Letellier must give everyone involved at least a 10-month notice.

“This would have been a key time to narrow that down, to confirm (the FAA) will be able to come up with funding and to know where we stand,” Letellier said. “But we don’t know.”

Tom Hendricks of Sioux Falls was flying Wednesday to Alaska and said the whole shutdown situation doesn’t concern him, though it makes him mad.

“It’s ridiculous (Congress) can’t make any decisions, that everything stays in limbo and there’s no concern for the traveling public,” Hendricks said. “Why would Congress even take the risk?

“Everyone is more concerned about what they can do to win the next election rather than running the country the way they should. They’ve got to put away their partisan politics. … It’s only getting worse. The public is being disserved by Congress.”

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