The money being used by the FAA to keep air traffic controllers on the job is being pulled from the pot that funds airport improvements such as those planned for Marco Island and Immokalee. But the two projects and the controversy that surrounds them will likely go on.
Chris Curry, executive director of the Collier County Airport Authority, says the federal money has already been set aside for design and engineering for runway rehabilitation at the two airports. “All we’re doing now is drawing down the funds that have we’ve been allocated,” he said.
The design and engineering for the two projects is about 30 percent complete. The Immokalee design work carries a cost of about $760,000 while the Marco design is costing about $650,000. Each project is 90 percent funded by the FAA with state and local governments splitting the rest.
Last week Congress passed the Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013. It allows Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to transfer as much as $253 million from money set aside for airport construction and repair to keep air traffic controllers from being furloughed, as had been required by budget sequestration.
When those furloughs began taking effect, flight delays ensued.
The act passed last week deals with fiscal year 2013, which ends Sept. 30.
Any threat to the Marco and Immokalee projects would come in 2014, when construction is tentatively set to begin. If Congress continues to reduce construction funding to keep commercial flights moving, grants like those that would fund the bulk of the runway rehabilitations could be threatened.
Bill Johnson, executive director of the Florida Airports Council, said there is a statewide concern that some projects won’t get done. But he hasn’t heard which projects are candidates for cuts. “It’s too early in the game,” he said.
Curry believes runways will still get top priority in coming years. “I don’t see it having an effect on us in the near future. Our projects are such critical safety improvements they will not be directly impacted,” he said. The cost of rehabilitation of the Collier runways could amount to 10 times the amount being spent on design and engineering.
If LaHood moves the maximum $253 million from the construction fund, it would amount to about a 10 percent cut in that area.
Curry is confident the local projects would go on even if similar cuts are made in 2014.
In fact, he’s optimistic some construction money can still be acquired this year. Design and engineering work on both projects should be completed by June, he said. That would put Collier County in a position to receive discretionary money that may be available late in the fiscal year if projects in other places come in under budget.
Curry said he’s focused on that possibility, rather than on future cuts beyond his control. “The only thing I can worry about is putting the airports in position as soon as possible so we can be eligible for that money. You would hate not to be eligible for 2013 discretionary money that you missed only because you weren’t ready.”
In the worst case, Curry says the FAA may only fund one of the two airports in 2014 and another in 2015. Or it could stretch what would be one-year projects over two years.
Even though the runways at Immokalee and Marco Island have been rated as “very poor” by the Florida Department of Transportation and even though the federal government is paying for the bulk of the work, the projects have not been without controversy.
In December, Collier County commissioners Georgia Hiller, Tim Nance and Tom Henning voted to stop the design. Only a warning from Curry, corroborated by Crystal Kinzel with the clerk of courts office, that the FAA would penalize the county for not proceeding with the effort to maintain safe runways moved them to reconsider.
If the FAA makes money available for actual construction next year, the county will have to apply for it and provide the local match, another possible hurdle, given the commission majority’s tepid support for the work.
(Connect with Brent Batten at email@example.com)