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Don’t jet out of town, leaving the FAA grounded

For 11 days and counting, the Federal Aviation Administration has been without the authorization to go about a portion of its daily business. We owe the American people a solution to this crisis before members head home for the August recess.

Because of congressional inaction, the FAA has been forced to issue some 200 stop-work orders — and turn 70,000 construction workers away from their jobs at airports across the country. The FAA also was left with no choice but to put approximately 4,000 public servants on unpaid leave in 35 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Every day this situation goes on, the consequences mount.

Runway paving, rehabilitation and extension projects are on hold. America’s transition from the radar-based airspace management system of the 20th century to the satellite-based airspace management system of the future is at a standstill.

New air traffic control towers in Gulfport, Miss.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; California’s Oakland and Palm Springs; Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and elsewhere remain unfinished — with contractors for additional towers in Cleveland and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., unselected and unable to move forward.

Worst of all, the American people are paying the economic toll. At a time when 1 in 5 construction workers is looking for employment, 70,000 will idle away the peak of construction season at home, without pay.

Stephen Sandherr, chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of America, put it well. “No doubt there are important policy questions that need to be resolved with the aviation legislation,” he said. “But construction workers shouldn’t have to suffer because Washington hasn’t figured out a way to work out its differences.”

The ripple effects are enormous. With workers barred from job sites, middle-class households won’t receive paychecks while their rent, mortgage or back-to-school bills pile up. Contractors will stop buying supplies. Employees will delay necessary purchases and repairs. Small-business owners will buy fewer goods for their restaurants and stores.

Of course, Washington still has time to do the right thing.

On 20 occasions since 2007, the Congress has passed short-term measures to keep the FAA up and running. This is an imperfect solution because it creates enormous uncertainty for states, airports and contractors, but at least it keeps American workers on the job site. There is absolutely no reason that Congress can’t pass another temporary fix while it works out the details of a longer-term vision for the future of America’s air transportation system.

I’ve devoted the better part of my career to Congress. I worked as a congressional staffer for 17 years and served as a member of Congress for 14. My message to my former colleagues is this: Don’t race to your departure gate while leaving America’s air transportation system grounded.

With one act — with a vote that you’ve already cast 20 times — you can put almost 75,000 people back to work immediately. For the sake of our communities, our economy and the best aviation system in the world, let’s give the politics an August rest — and cut American workers a much-needed break.

LaHood is secretary of the Department of Transportation, and is a former Republican lawmaker from Illinois.

Updated: Thursday, April 19, 2012
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