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Carnahan: FAA bill could endanger St. Louis China hub

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 01, 2011 - WASHINGTON - A House-passed blueprint for Federal Aviation Administration programs could threaten the St. Louis Lambert Midwest China Hub project because it would cut federal airport improvement funding, U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan warned Friday.

"Everyone agrees we have to find places to eliminate waste and tighten our belts. But slashing programs that create jobs is a backward approach that will hurt St. Louis's economy, just as we are about to take off," said Carnahan, D-St. Louis, in a statement.

He said the China Hub effort could be hurt because the bill would cut Missouri's share of federal Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funds by more than $2 million, according to a House Democratic analysis of the bill. Illinois' AIP funding would be cut by $3.5 million.

Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, who led the Democratic opposition to the FAA reauthorization bill, warned that it could cause hundreds of aviation safety personnel to be furloughed, weakening the agency's inspection workforce while also hurting the economy. He also opposed an anti-union provision of the bill that would reverse a National Mediation Board decision from last year allowing a union to be certified if a majority of members participating in the election vote for certification.

"This controversial bill compromises safety and passed by the smallest margin of any FAA bill in decades," said Costello.

The $59.7 billion bill, which was approved on a mostly party-line vote of 223-196, would reduce the FAA's budget by about $4 billion over the next three and a half years. It would require the agency to adjust its safety regulations for different segments of the aviation industry rather than enforce overall safety standards.

Both Carnahan and Costello said they hoped that some provisions of the FAA bill would be changed when congressional negotiators discuss the major differences with the Senate-passed version, which offers more funding and does not include the controversial labor and safety provisions. President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the bill if the funding levels and the labor provision are retained.

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The legislation's main Republican sponsor, Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., argued that the FAA could do without the money that was cut without sacrificing safety. But Costello said he was concerned that the cutbacks could lead to furloughs of hundreds of FAA workers, which would weaken the agency's inspection workforce.

Costello said he was particularly worried about a narrowly approved amendment, sponsored by Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., that the Illinois congressman said would weaken safety standards enacted last year by moving away from the FAA's overall safety standard and making its rulemaking process more bureaucratic and time-consuming.

During the House debate, Schuster said his provision would only apply to future FAA regulations and contended that it would "strengthen the rule-making process and make the skies and aviation travel even safer than it is today."

In addition to his concerns about the bill's impact on air safety, Carnahan also worried that its cutbacks in the AIP could impact the St. Louis China Hub effort - mainly because AIP grants are critical to St. Louis's efforts to prepare Lambert Airport to serve as the Midwest China Hub - and are the only source of funding for key elements, such as apron and taxiing work in the area surrounding Lambert's largest hangar.

 

Federal, Missouri and local officials have been trying to organize and fund a "China hub" at Lambert that would establish St. Louis as China's cargo gateway to the Midwest. The Missouri Senate is expected to take up a bill soon that would offer tax-credit incentives to companies that ship exports out of Missouri.

"Because of the Midwest China Hub project St. Louis is poised to become a central player in the global economy, it means jobs and economic activity that our region desperately needs," Carnahan said.

Costello, the ranking Democrat on the House Aviation Subcommittee and a likely member of a House-Senate conference committee that would reconcile differences in versions of the legislation, said he hopes the final version of the bill is able to meet safety and labor concerns.

In upcoming discussions with the Senate, Costello said, "we need to enact a fair and comprehensive bill that furthers safety and advances our transition to the next-generation Air Transportation System. I will continue to work towards that goal."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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