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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.”

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Congress’ inaction halts Oakland control tower

Contractors building the new air traffic control tower at Oakland International Airport have been told to stop work today on the $31 million project because Congress missed its Friday-night deadline to reauthorize routine funding for the Federal Aviation Administration.

artist's rendering of new Oakland control towerThe Oakland tower, for which ground was broken last October, is just one of dozens of stop-work orders issued all over the nation, worth a total of about $148.5 million.

“Construction workers across America will lose their jobs and local communities will be hurt the longer this goes on. Congress needs to pass an FAA bill to prevent further economic damage,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a news release issued this morning. “This is no way to run the best aviation system in the world.”

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said the longer Congress waits, the more work will grind to a halt. “Work is stopping on construction and planning projects, NextGen system testing, and airport certification. The list goes on and on and this is just the beginning.”

As the Washington Post reported, the funding extension would have been the 21st since the FAA’s long-term funding authorization expired in 2007, but House Republicans added provisions to their extension bill that the Senate would not accept.

House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., said he included the provision to which Democrats objected due to his frustration over the pace of negotiations to reach agreement on long-term FAA funding plans passed by the House and Senate this year. It cut about $16.5 million in federal subsidies for air service to several small airports in rural areas.

The Senate refused this because these stop-gap extensions normally are bare-bones legislation to simply extend funding at current levels while Congress irons out differences over a longer term.

Construction workers, engineers and planners were told to stay home today after the FAA lost its Congressional authorization to pay a variety of airport construction, rehabilitation and modernization projects. Nearly 4,000 FAA personnel, many needed to oversee various aspects of these projects, were furloughed on Saturday. The delays could significantly increase the projects’ final costs, officials say.

Other major projects halted today are at Las Vegas’ MccCarran International Airport; Palm Springs International Airport; Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pa.) International Airport; Battle Creek (Mich.) International Airport; Gulfport-Biloxi (Miss.) 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.

The FAA had been prepared to contracts for new air traffic control towers in Cleveland and in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but now is no longer authorized to access the Airport and Airway Trust Fund.

Besides building major aviation facilities such as control towers, the FAA is a main funding source for other airport projects through the Airport Improvement Program, which can’t run without congressional reauthorization; that leaves the agency unable to get roughly $2.5 billion out the door for airport projects in all 50 states, meaning delayed or lost jobs.

Nearly 4,000 FAA employees in 35 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have been furloughed and forced to go without pay; California is among the eight-hardest hit states. This includes engineers, scientists, research analysts, administrative assistants, computer specialists, program managers and analysts, environmental protection specialists, and community planners. Public safety is not being affected, the agency insists.

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Today’s Congressional odds and ends

Eshoo recovering from surgery: Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, underwent a successful laparoscopic appendectomy at Stanford Hospital yesterday and is making a full recovery, her office reported this morning. There were no complications from the surgery, performed by Dr. Karen Whang. Eshoo, 68, will be working from home for the rest of the week, her office said.

Barbara Lee (Dec-2010)Lee praises flights to Cuba: Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, announced that Oakland International Airport has received authorization by the United States Customs and Border Protection to become the first Bay Area airport offering direct charter passenger flights to Cuba. The decision to allow scheduled flights to Cuba is part of a broader effort by President Barack Obama to reach out to the Cuban people for academic, religious, humanitarian and news-gathering purposes. “This new charter is another important step in moving beyond the outdated Cold War era policies of the past and turning to a new, productive page in U.S.-Cuba relations and hopefully will lead to more travel and exchange with Cuba,” Lee said in a news release. “I have always believed that people-to-people diplomacy is the one of the most effective ways for strengthening ties between two nations. I am hopeful that today’s announcement will lead to many more Bay Area residents taking advantage of the opportunity to directly engage with the Cuban people.”

Miller strikes back on health care: Republicans from the House Education and the Workforce Committee’s Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee held a field hearing yesterday in Evansville, Ind., on “The Recent Health Care Law: Consequences for Indiana Families and Workers,” and Rep. George Miller – the committee’s ranking Democrat – fired back with a column published today in the local paper. “Unfortunately, the hearing was more of the same and ignored the positive impacts the Affordable Care Act will have on Hoosiers,” Miller, D-Martinez, wrote in Evansville’s Courier & Press. “This is unfortunate. The new law has begun to deliver real benefits for Hoosier businesses, families and seniors. You deserve the truth on what the law does. Despite all of the heated rhetoric, health reform succeeded and the sky has not fallen.”

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Senate delays FedEx labor showdown

The U.S. Senate this week delayed debate on legislation that shipping giant FedEx says would endanger some of the 2,000 jobs it provides at Oakland International Airport, but local lawmakers say the company just doesn’t want to lose an advantage over its workers and competitors.

FedExWorkers at FedEx Express – the air-oriented rapid delivery division of Memphis-based FedEx Corp. – are covered by the Railway Labor Act, which lets them unionize but curbs their right to strike. A section in the House version of the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, HR 915, would amend the RLA to cover only pilots, aircraft maintenance workers and aircraft dispatchers, meaning most of FedEx Express’ employees would suddenly have strike rights under the National Labor Relations Act.

That provision isn’t in the U.S. Senate version of the bill, but the chamber briefly took it up for debate this week – and FedEx went to the mattresses to try to stop it – before the bill was postponed for another three months.

“This provision was inserted in a backroom deal in the dark of night without a hearing, public input or economic study,” FedEx spokesman Maury Lane said Monday. “It changed 70 years of labor law which has been serving employees under the RLA well by having 10 times the amount of unionization than the NLRA … so this move is actually an antiunion move, in reality, if you look at the bigger picture.”

The Teamsters disagree. The union and UPS, FedEx’s arch-rival, convinced House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., to insert and champion the provision. They call the current situation a loophole that treats FedEx differently from all its competitors and deprives workers of labor rights.

Lane says UPS is bigger and older than FedEx but does more of its shipping by truck and entered the air freight business a decade after FedEx, yet structured its operations in such a way that packages are moved by a chain of workers “contaminated” with a mixture of RLA and NLRA labor rules; FedEx Express workers always have been covered only by the RLA.

“They could’ve set their company up smart like we did but they chose to take a shortcut and they’re paying for it now because of a costly labor contract they signed two years ago,” he said. “This is not about leveling the playing field, this is about them wiping us off the playing field and getting a legislative bailout to fix a broken economic model.”

Lane noted FedEx Express has 12,000 employees in California, about 2,000 of whom work in a hub at Oakland’s airport. Giving local workers the power to strike means decreasing FedEx Express’ reliability, he said, citing a 1997 strike that stilled UPS for 16 days. Less reliability means less customers and less revenue, he said, and that means letting workers go.

“There seems to me to be no reason for FedEx to have a special exemption from the normal labor laws that govern that industry,” countered Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, is the only Bay Area member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, though he wasn’t yet in office when the House passed its version of this bill last May.

Garamendi said Northern California’s business is “crucial” to FedEx and the company surely won’t curtail operations here. “UPS operates in the Bay Area very successfully with a union and they’re not pulling out, so I think it’s an anti-union attitude of FedEx that’s in play here, but the reality is quite different.”

Oakland International Airport falls in the 13th Congressional District represented by Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont. His staff said he supports the provision because it would treat FedEx the same as its peers and protect workers’ labor rights.

The consensus among staffers for both of California’s U.S. Senators is that the provision won’t be inserted into the Senate version of the bill, so it’ll become an issue for the conference committee working out differences between the House and Senate versions. A spokeswoman for Barbara Boxer said she supports the provision as a means of “leveling the playing field for all of our workers;” a spokesman for Dianne Feinstein said she has taken no position on the provision.