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LaHood, in Oakland, says FAA needs long-term bill

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood anticipates the Senate will pass and the President will sign a Federal Aviation Administration extension bill – which the House passed today – by week’s end, avoiding another worker furlough and construction freeze.

But this is the 22nd such extension in the past five years, LaHood said at a news conference next to the new control tower being built at Oakland International Airport. “These short-term extensions are not good for the best aviation system in the world.”

LaHood said this extension, which runs through January, should be enough time for Congress and the President to finish negotiating a long-term reauthorization, despite a few “big differences” remaining. One of those differences, he acknowledged while standing amid several dozen union members, is Republican insistence on a provision changing union election rules to make it harder for transportation workers to organize.

“There are always different issues with bills like this,” LaHood said today, adding he sees a growing feeling in Congress that a long-term reauthorization is necessary. “I’m optimistic that this can be resolved.”

Congress must move toward a long-term surface transportation bill as well, he said, and must take up President Obama’s American Jobs Act proposal in order to “put America back to work building America’s infrastructure.”

“There are no Republican or Democratic bridges, there are no Republican or Democratic roads,” he said. “We need to get back to that.”

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt also was at the Oakland news conference and recalled having attended the groundbreaking for the new control tower, one of many projects across the nation that were shut down for nearly two weeks this summer as Republicans refused to pass a clean FAA funding extension.

“It’s wonderful to see how much has been done,” Babbitt said. “We need to make certain that this job gets finished.”

The two-week shutdown led to the furloughs of thousands of FAA workers, the temporary layoffs of 70,000 construction workers and millions of dollars wasted nationwide, he said; in Oakland, workers on the tower were idled while scaffolding costing $6,000 a day remained unused. “We’re the model of the world, and this is not the way to do our business.”

Asked about high-speed rail, LaHood reiterated his support for such projects.

“I see a lot of support for high-speed rail in California,” he said, adding the state could be a model for the rest of the nation. “We are not going to be dissuaded by a little background noise of criticism. Whenever you do big things, a few people are going to be against it.”

And asked about Congress’ many stalemates on transportation and other issues, LaHood – who served 14 years as an Illinois congressman – said politics has eclipsed policy this year but he believes constituents’ frustrations voiced in recent weeks will spur lawmakers to cooperation and action. “I don’t think ‘no’ is enough anymore.”

Also at today’s news conference were Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and Port of Oakland Executive Director Omar Benjamin.

“I don’t know about you but I’m pretty tired of this backdrop,” Quan quipped, noting today’s was the third FAA-funding news conference at the site in recent months. Hopefully, she said, “the third time is the charm.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.