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UPDATED: Tower Opening Delayed at University Park Airport

on February 04, 2011 5:45 PM

Editor's note @ 5:45 p.m.: An earlier version of this report included the suggestion that delays over a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill are at fault. That is not the case. The article has been updated to reflect new reporting and additional information.

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When Air Force One landed Thursday at University Park Airport, President Barack Obama likely had a perfect view of the pristine, $3.9 million traffic-control tower there.

The new facility, financed in part by federal money, has been a local point of pride. Construction wrapped up this winter, and officials celebrated Dec. 7 the improved safety and efficiency that the 82-foot tower should deliver.

But the tower, expected to open in January, has not started operations yet, airport Director Bryan Rodgers confirmed late Thursday.

In fact, no members of a planned seven- to eight-member air-traffic-control staff have been hired.

"Without it," Rodgers said of the tower, "we don't have that enhancement of safety that we've been working so hard to have."

He said the delay is rooted in Washington, D.C.

The staff of U.S. Rep. Glenn "G.T." Thompson, R-Howard, explained the issue is tied to a continuing resolution that will expire in March.

The Democratically controlled former Congress passed the federal resolution during its lame-duck session in December. That measure set government-program funding at 2010 levels for the first few months of 2011.

And that includes funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, which is expected to pay for staffing at the University Park Airport tower.

Because the FAA is currently operating at 2010 funding levels, it appears the agency doesn't have the money on hand to hire for the tower right now. An FAA spokesman would say only that the agency's goal is to have the tower operational by March.

In an interview Friday evening, Thompson criticized former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leadership of the last House. Under their guidance, he said, the House last year did not introduce a federal budget -- the first time that's happened since the mid-1970s.

Thompson called the situation "completely unacceptable."

"I think the bigger problem here is ... that Speaker Pelosi and the party from last year did not do a budget," Thompson said. " ... Funding the government through a continuing resolution is no way to do business."

The new Congress is slated to begin new budget discussions for 2011 next week. Within a couple weeks, Thompson said, he expects the House will pass an interim funding resolution to carry the government through the rest of this fiscal year. 

A longer process is expected as the Congress establishes a separate budget for the following fiscal year. In both budget cases, Thompson said, it will be FAA leaders' responsibility to divvy up their new federal allocations for regional needs, including the local airport tower.

"I'm absolutely hopeful that the FAA has included in their plans" some staffing for the new tower, Thompson said.

StateCollege.com has reached out to the offices of U.S. Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey, as well, and will post additional details as they become available.

Rodgers, meanwhile, said the airport learned "at the 11th hour" that the tower would not be staffed as scheduled in January. The alert came from the FAA in mid- to late-December, he said.

"As a community and as an airport, we've done our part. We designed and built the facility, put considerable time, effort and dollars into that," Rodgers said. "Now we're subject to the circumstances we find ourselves in with the lack of a budget. ...

"We are crossing our fingers and hoping that it will be resolved sooner rather than later," he said.

He said the airport has made the area's federal legislators aware of the tower staffing issue. "They've been supportive of this project," Rodgers added.

The tower is the first at the airport, which began operation in the 1950s. A combination of local, state and federal funds paid for the improvement project. And while its core goal is to bolster safety and efficiency of air traffic, it's also expected to make the airport more attractive to aviation operators.

That, in turn, is expected to help the local economy.

For now, air traffic at University Park Airport is continuing to be managed from New York Center, a control facility near New York City.

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