The Texas Department of Transportation may dampen the fiscal turbulence shaking the state’s small airports and potentially fund 13 Texas air traffic control towers slated for closure in the next few weeks.
Gov. Rick Perry on Wednesday asked the Texas Transportation Commission to consider providing emergency assistance to keep the control towers open for the next 90 days, calling them a “vital safety network.”
Cities across the state, including Georgetown and San Marcos, have been scrambling to find funding over the past few weeks to keep the towers open. The Federal Aviation Administration recently slashed funding for 149 control towers nationwide to trim about $600 million from its 2013 budget under the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.
The commission gets the final say on whether the Transportation Department can use its $193 million aviation budget to fund the control towers. Officials estimate keeping the 13 towers open would cost a total of $7 million a year.
If temporary funding is approved, the state would re-evaluate providing additional funding after 90 days. Control towers were slated to begin closing on April 7.
“While President Obama has chosen to make sequestration as painful as possible, I cannot with good conscience allow him to put his political agenda ahead of public safety,” Perry said in a letter to state Transportation Commission Chairman Ted Houghton.
Closing the towers, Perry wrote, could jeopardize the safety of Texas emergency personnel, residents and visitors.
The FAA for years has paid private contractors to run the 13 Texas control towers, which help coordinate takeoffs and landings. Officials in Georgetown in San Marcos have said closure would force pilots to coordinate their own landings — making them potentially more dangerous — and could hurt workers and businesses that depend on the towers being open.
San Marcos air traffic controller Ed Mears said Perry’s proposal could provide temporary relief but creates more anxiety over the future of the towers.
“It feels better than not having a job,” Mears said. “I just hope it gives people time to find a solution.”
Running the control towers in San Marcos and Georgetown would cost each city about $600,000. The Georgetown City Council voted to give its transportation department until April 23 to come up with a recommendation. The San Marcos City Council will meet April 3 to discuss options for funding its control tower.
Ed Polasek, Georgetown transportation services director, said it is unreasonable for the federal government to cut funding for the control towers and leave cities to pick up the slack. The Georgetown Municipal Airport operates solely on its revenue and does not make enough to fund the tower on its own, Polasek said.
“If we want to be a recreational airport, or a mom-and-pop airport, then tower closure is probably great,” he said. “But if you want to have an airport that’s self-sustained, the tower is the only way of ensuring business.”