Oakland airport project on hold until new FAA bill authorized

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, a group of union workers and Port of Oakland Board Vice President Gilda Gonzales stand on a construction site at the Oakland Airport on Tuesday that has been stalled after the FAA's authorization expired in late July.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, a group of union workers and Port of Oakland Board Vice President Gilda Gonzales stand on a construction site at the Oakland Airport on Tuesday that has been stalled after the FAA's authorization expired in late July.

Ashley Davidson is one year into a five-year apprenticeship with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union 595, working to complete 8,000 hours of training to become a licensed electrician.  But because the U.S. House of Representatives hasn’t passed a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, she’s out of work at the moment.

The project she had been working on, a new $31 million air traffic control tower at the Oakland International Airport, is one of more than 200 aviation projects around the country that have been halted since the last authorization of Federal funding for the FAA expired July 23. Sixty engineers and contractors on the site were furloughed.

Davidson’s last day on the job was July 22. Her tools are still there. “We don’t know when we’re going to go back to work,” said Davidson, 24, of Oakland. “There’s no answer for us. I’m going to file for unemployment and see if I can get by.”

Davidson was one of three furloughed electricians to speak at a press conference at the air traffic control construction site Tuesday morning. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and representatives from the Port of Oakland and local labor groups also were on hand to urge Congress to pass a bill that would reauthorize funding before it leaves for August recess this week.

The FAA, which has a $16 billion budget, has been partially shut down and airlines have been unable to collect ticket taxes since the last authorization expired. House Republicans and Senate Democrats are battling over cuts to the FAA funding—a bill that passed the House two weeks ago included $16.5 million in cuts to air service subsidies for rural airports and a labor provision that would make it more difficult for workers to unionize. The bill was ultimately rejected by the Senate.

According to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, the lack of a reauthorization bill has furloughed 4,000 FAA employees and cost 70,000 construction jobs. In Oakland, it has halted construction on the 236-foot air traffic control tower, which was scheduled to be completed by 2013 and replace the airport’s two existing towers that were built in 1962 and 1972.

Quan said the new tower is part of an overall growth plan to increase international flights to Oakland. “We’re very discouraged this will be set back at least a few months,” she said.

Quan also bemoaned the loss of apprenticeship jobs for people like Davidson who have been put back to work with stimulus grants. “These jobs are really important to those that have not been part of the economic growth,” Quan said.

For Davidson, the job loss is also halting her education. “I’m not just missing out on money,” she said. “I’m missing out on essential training that is really important for my development and education to learn the skills I need to be an electrician.”

Theo Green, a 34-year-old electrician from Oakland, was also put out of work when the FAA’s authorization expired. Green said he’s worked about six months in the past two years because of a lack of jobs, and recently had his health insurance kick back in because he’d worked enough hours on the tower project while it was still underway. Now he’s furloughed, waiting around the house and unemployed until he hears otherwise.

“There’s uncertainty,” Green said, “because I have a mortgage and unemployment is nothing to live off of.”

 

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