WASHINGTON – A congressional spat over a bill extending the Federal Aviation Administration’s operating authority has temporarily stopped some of the work refurbishing the air traffic control tower at the Portland Jetport.

The work stoppage – part of a nationwide halt to airport construction projects announced this morning by the FAA – is more of an inconvenience than a major problem right now for a $935,000 seismic upgrade project reinforcing the structure of control tower building, said Jeff Verreault, project manager for Atlantic Defense Constructors, a Portland-based contractor.

Ten workers on the airport project, which is three-quarters completed, have been shifted to other projects in the area, Verreault said.

“Nobody is getting laid off,” Verreault said. “Luckily, the rest of the government is not shutting down.”

Still, there are costs associated with stopping and eventually re-starting the work, Verreault said.

The stopped work is not affecting air traffic safety operations or air service. A $163,000 elevator project at the control tower and a $9,000 electrical project also are temporarily halted.

But the FAA work stoppage order affects work only at the control tower, not the ongoing renovation in the terminal or elsewhere at the airport, said Gregory Hughes, the Jetport’s marketing manager.

Part of the congressional fight is over the $200 million Essential Air Program, which offers federal funding to airlines for providing service to small airports, including in Augusta, Presque Isle, Bar Harbor and Rockland. Maine lawmakers from both parties have been fighting to preserve the program.

The Essential Air Program was targeted for elimination by some Republicans as part of the debate over a bill overhauling federal aviation policies and renewing the FAA’s operating authority.
Those who want to eliminate the subsidy program, including U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., say it is an example of federal spending the country can’t afford.

A final reauthorization bill has been stalled for years, and Congress has been passing short-term extensions keeping current aviation policies intact.

But the latest short-term extension has become embroiled in several debates, including again over the Essential Air Service program. The House transportation committee, chaired by GOP U.S. Rep. John Mica of Florida, wants to eliminate EAS subsidies for 13 airports as part of the extension, though none of those are in Maine.

The Democratic-led Senate refuses to go along with that. Several of the airports whose subsidies would be eliminated by the House extension are located in the states of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va., chairman of the Senate’s transportation committee, and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana, chairman of the Senate’s Essential Air Services caucus.

The dispute stalling the extension – the previous extension expired midnight Friday – also concerns a GOP proposal to make it more difficult for airline workers to unionize.

Nationwide, about 4,000 workers were affected by this morning’s work stoppage order by the FAA, though some, like those in Portland, could be transferred to other jobs.

But Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told reporters today on a conference call that, “This is no way to run the best aviation system in the world. The fact that Congress can’t work this out is exactly why the American people are fed up with Congress.”

This dispute is unrelated to the impasse over raising the federal debt ceiling.

But Maine’s Second District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud sounded a similar note as LaHood, saying that, “This FAA controversy is just the latest sign of how broken Washington is right now.”