Construction of Oakland International Airport's new air traffic control tower was halted Monday because Congress missed its Friday-night deadline to reauthorize routine funding for the Federal Aviation Administration.
The Oakland tower, for which ground was broken in October, is among dozens of stalled projects across the nation worth $493 million.
"The Oakland tower is a very important project not only for the Oakland area," U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said on a conference call Monday. "There are a lot of construction workers that were going to show up at work today, to work on that important $31 million project, that were told not to show up. This kind of delay during the construction season is something we can ill afford."
There's "no excuse" for failing to pass a clean reauthorization bill free of politicking, he said. "Congress didn't do its work ... and this is no way to run the best aviation agency in the world."
FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said his agency is "not going to budget safety; our air traffic control is fully manned and staffed. The travelling public should be very comfortable it's still travelling in the safest system in the world."
But "we need an FAA bill quickly so we can get our employees ... back to work," he added. "We need to get these projects back underway."
In Oakland, 60 FAA engineers and contractors funded through the FAA were told to stay home Monday and won't be paid, while heavy construction equipment costing $5,000 a day sits idle. The new 236-foot tower, to be finished in 2013, will improve efficiency and reduce costs by combining personnel into one facility with a better view of the 2,500-acre airfield, rather than the two existing towers built in 1962 and the mid-1970s.
Spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes said the Port of Oakland, which owns and operates the airport, hopes funding will be restored soon "so that certainty in our national aviation system can be restored" and the long-awaited tower project can continue.
Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont, in whose district the airport lies, said Monday "this is just my Republican friends playing games, a game of political chicken to see what kind of trouble they can stir up. We could pass this, as we have year after year, in a New York minute if they wouldn't clutter it up."
The FAA was due for its 21st pro-forma, short-term funding extension since its long-term funding authorization expired in 2007. But with slow progress toward reconciling differing long-term funding plans passed by the House and Senate this year, House Republicans added what Senate Democrats saw as a poison pill: cutting about $16.5 million in federal subsidies for air service to small airports in rural areas.
So without authorization to spend money, the FAA has furloughed nearly 4,000 personnel across the nation, many of whom are necessary for construction to continue. The delay could significantly increase the projects' final costs, officials say.
Other major projects halted Monday are at Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport; Palm Springs International Airport; Pennsylvania's Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport; Michigan's Battle Creek International Airport; Mississippi's Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport; and New York City's LaGuardia Airport.
The FAA also halted $370 million in contracts with Jacobs Engineering of Pasadena, which is under contract to do all the architectural, design, engineering and planning services for existing and future air traffic facilities. Approval is on hold for airports to receive a new generation of super large airliners, including permission for Boeing 747-800s to begin servicing San Francisco International Airport.
Finally, the FAA can't get roughly $2.5 billion out the door from its Airport Improvement Program, which funds projects in all 50 states; Babbitt said California's share is about $38 million.