MCKINNEY – As Texas struggles to maintain its aging highway system, anger is growing after the state’s transportation department suddenly announced it would pay to keep small air traffic control towers open.
The move ignited controversy from critics who accuse the state agency of worrying about keeping operations smooth for private jets while millions of drivers slog through congested highways on the ground.
“I'm not quite sure why TxDOT -- who seems to be broke and wants to charges us more to drive on roads -- has all of a sudden come up with money to keep open the Dallas Executive Airport,” said Katrina Pierson, a Tea Party activist in Garland. “They definitely want to keep the private jets in the air, for whatever reason.”
Thirteen Texas air traffic control towers were set to lose federal funding as early as next week due to forced cutbacks in Washington triggered by the sequestration. Dallas Executive Airport in Oak Cliff and Collin County’s Regional Airport in McKinney were the only North Texas towers on the list.
Texas Department of Transportation officials announced Thursday morning they are pairing with Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Aviation Industry to pass an initiative to ensure the 13 towers remain open. If approved, the state would foot a $7 million bill to keep the towers operational for one year, said TxDOT spokesman Mark Cross. The agency insists the money would come out of the $60 million it uses annually to plan, build and maintain community airports across the state.
"Safety is our No. 1 priority on the ground as well as in the air. This is something that we have to support in any way that we can," Cross said. He added TxDOT hasn’t decided how much money each airport would receive or when, saying the plan is still in its infancy. "All of them [the airports] do not have resources that will allow them to continue their operations as they are now."
The Texas Transportation Commission will vote on the measure at 9 a.m. on April 4th at TxDOT’s headquarters in downtown Austin.
The other 11 towers include: New Braunfels, Brownsville, Easterwood Field College Station, TSTC Waco, Lone Star Executive Houston, Georgetown Muni, San Marcos Muni, Sugarland Regional, Stinson Muni San Antonio, Tyler Pounds Regional and Victoria Regional.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz, himself a vocal player in the sequester fight, supported the state’s proposal.
“I am glad to see Texas leading,” Sen. Cruz said. “I think this is Texas responding to the game playing by the federal government and by the Obama administration.
Yet for years TxDOT has warned lawmakers it was in a funding crisis. Last month, the agency’s chairman told a finance committee in Austin that soon there may not be enough money for new highway expansion or construction projects unless TxDOT received billions more. TxDOT has accrued $13 billion in debt. Lawmakers have proposed dipping into the Rainy Day Fund or raising the annual vehicle registration fees by $50 to make up for the gap.
“They (TxDOT) are always broke, and when they go broke they come back to the taxpayer to get more money,” Pierson said, “that's the solution TxDOT is pushing at the same time funding corporate jets.”
Supporters say the move is motivated by safety. The airports could continue to operate without air traffic controllers; pilots would use the Unicom system to coordinate their landings and takeoffs among themselves. Yet it’s a dangerous idea, pilots insist, especially over North Texas’ congested skies.
“When you come to the airport there's a lot of other airplanes going to that same airport- leaving that same airport,” said pilot Don Callaham, who’s been flying out of Collin County’s Regional Airport for 14 years. “It gets busy.”
The McKinney airport sees 280 flights a day and relies on a tower that requires six employees to keep it manned 16 hours a day year-round. Operating the tower costs $650,000 a year.
Yet before TxDOT’s announcement, the small airport had already found a way to keep its tower open. The local City Council decided last week it would pick up the tab through September- a burden TxDOT will now likely bear.
“I understand how folks might feel,” Ken Wiegand, the airport director, noted, “but this is an important part of the economy. The aircraft that are flying out of here fly for companies that are employing most of the people that are buying cars and driving on the highways.”