FAA grounds Victoria air traffic control funding

Melissa Crowe By Melissa Crowe

March 22, 2013 at 6:03 p.m.
Updated March 22, 2013 at 10:23 p.m.

Mike Barnes is playing out the scenario of his nightmares. Two planes fly into Victoria, something goes wrong, and the air traffic control tower is empty.

Barnes, 34, is counting on a miracle to keep his job - and the control tower staffed - at Victoria Regional Airport.

The county built the $2 million tower in 2008, thanks to a federal 90 percent cost-share program. However, the tower is set to close April 7 because of another federal measure.

"I've lost sleep over it," Barnes said.

Despite his and other U.S. controllers' pleas to their congressional representatives to keep the funding in place, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday that Victoria is officially on the chopping block along with 148 other airports nationwide to lose funding for staffing air traffic control towers.

Losing federal funding for Victoria's tower puts pressure on the county government to find money to cover its cost, which is estimated at $500,000 annually.

While Victoria County Commissioners Court is accepting bids through 10 a.m. Monday for tower management, County Judge Don Pozzi said the county is not in a position to fund the tower long term.

"Obviously, I can't speak for the court ... based on what has happened, I'm confident that we will find a way to keep the tower open until we find a permanent solution," he said.

The tower spending cuts are part of $637 million the FAA must shed by Sept. 30, brought on by the $85 billion cuts to federal spending across the government.

Airport Manager Jason Milewski said the notice was expected and frustrating.

Thirteen control towers in Texas are scheduled for closure. The only tower previously on the list, Arlington, will remain open.

"The thing that's frustrating to us is how an agency or administration can perform this action without any justification, without releasing any reasoning, without considering the consequences and without being accountable," Milewski said. "This doesn't just affect Victoria; this affects almost 200 communities across the country. There will be a tragedy tied to this."

In a news release, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the FAA listened to communities across the U.S. about the importance of their towers.

"Unfortunately, we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration," LaHood said.

"In addition to reviewing materials submitted on behalf of towers on the potential closure list, the Department of Transportation consulted with the departments of Defense and Homeland Security and conducted operational assessments of each potential tower closure on the national air transportation system," according to the news release.

Milewski said the air traffic control tower program has been one of the FAA's most cost-effective programs because it is user-funded.

Funded with fuel taxes and user fees, the FAA enters into contracts with air traffic companies, resulting in smaller airports having air traffic controllers. Robinson Aviation has the contract with Victoria.

Contract towers operate at about a quarter of the cost of an equivalent federal tower, Milewski said.

"Although this is blamed on sequestration and tied to sequestration by statements of the administration, it really has nothing to do with it," Milewski said. "This is an independent system. ... They are threatening the national safety of our airspace and crippling local economies, which contributes to the gross national product of our country."

He said the county is prepared to find funding sources to keep the tower open. However, there has not been an official vote or announcement from the commissioners court.

Still, some communities might opt to participate in the FAA's non-federal tower program and would then fund their own air traffic control services.

Since Victoria's tower opened in 2008, air traffic has doubled, Milewski said.

"Closing the tower would would be like removing the light at the Loop and Navarro," he said. "The best way I can equate it is like a traffic light. It's the traffic signal for air traffic."



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