Funding for airport project in jeopardy
by Chris Norwood
TALLADEGA – The federal sequester may have some unintended consequences regarding the Talladega Municipal Airport’s long-term goal of becoming a major cargo hub.

According to a report submitted by engineer Ken Gilbert to the Airport Board Tuesday, federal funds from the Airport Improvement Program were initially immune to the sequester, since they come from a surcharge on airline tickets and are placed in a trust fund exclusively for infrastructure projects. The sequester, among other random cuts, included slashing funds for air traffic control towers, which threatened to slow air traffic between major cities. In order to keep the towers open, Gilbert explained, Congress decided to raid the AIP Trust Fund.

“The bill that saved the control towers for the first time allowed the taking of money from the AIP Trust Fund, a fund established to help make physical infrastructure improvements at airports and use that money to pay for (Federal Aviation Administration) operations, i.e., employee labor,” he said. “More specifically, the portion of the AIP trust fund that was used was the AIP discretionary fund. As a result of the tower funding, the discretionary funds made available in 2013 for the Southern Region were reduced from $300 million to $84 million. Very few discretionary projects in 2013 will be funded. However, the Jacksonville (Mississippi) (Airport District Office) is still telling us the transient apron at Talladega is a contender for federal funding in 2013.”

The next step in the Talladega Airport becoming a cargo center is the construction of a concrete apron heavy enough to park a cargo plane on. Phase one and phase two of this project are almost complete, but phase three, the concrete layer over the asphalt, still needs to be completed.

Work on the first two phases will need to be completed by the end of June if there is any hope of phase three being funded this year.

“Work did not start the week of March 13 as planned,” he reported. “As a result, a meeting is planned for May 21 with all contractors, the engineer, the field representatives and the testing labs to help reinitiate this project and get it moving again,” he said. “We’re going to have to crack the whip.”

Because the Talladega project is fairly far along, Gilbert said he was confident the rest would be funded, but there was no way to say for sure, and delays in Washington were creating uncertainty.

“FAA construction money has still not been released for 2013,” he said. “Usually, that happens in January or February. The deadline for grant submittals is Aug. 15, 2013.”

Gilbert said he has been an airport engineer for 40 years and has never seen a situation like the current one.

And it is likely to get worse before it gets better. “As a result of sequestration, the FAA will be required to reduce its operating budget in FY 2014 by an additional $1 billion. In 2013, it had to reduce its budget by $631 million. Sequestration is a 10-year program, and it is not going away,” Gilbert said.

The budget submitted by the White House does not help the situation either, Gilbert said.

“The national FAA budget is $2.9 billion,” he said. “AIP says if the budget falls below $3.2 million, the $150,000 annual entitlement that airports get drops to maybe $125,000, with the local match rising from 10 percent to 20 percent,” he said.

Gilbert expressed guarded optimism that the situation might improve in FY 2015.

Contact Chris Norwood at cnorwood@dailyhome.com

© 2013