LAKELAND, Fla.- U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said Thursday Congress could avoid the Federal Aviation Administration shuttering of 149 airport towers in Florida and other states by targeting a few projects spread throughout the federal government and deemed by some to be unnecessary, duplicative or wasteful.
In a move one lawmaker likened to “removing stop lights and stop signs from our roads," the FAA has announced it’s closing the towers - 14 of them in Florida – to comply with a mandated across-the-board budget cut at all federal agencies. The tower closings will take place over four weeks starting April 7.
“Congress can’t find the estimated $10 million it would take to keep the towers open in Florida, yet the government’s still able to pay for a lot of questionable stuff,” said Nelson, citing Sen. Tom Coburn's annual slam-book on the government wasting taxpayers’ money.
A list compiled for 2011 by the Oklahoma Republican included projects, like, some $10 million for a remake of Sesame Street for Pakistan; or, on Coburn’s 2012 list, $24 million in administrative costs the government incurs to manage contracts for items no one buys anymore, like, typewriters.
“Right now, I’d rather have the money to spend to on keeping our airport towers open,” Nelson said. “Look, these regional airports serve not only business and commerce, but also law enforcement, air ambulances, and search and rescue operations.
“These aren’t low-priority operations,” the Florida Democrat said.
Nelson will discuss possible ways of keeping the towers open during a visit Thursday with area officials, including Lakeland Linder Regional Airport Director Gene Conrad. Linder Airport’s tower is among those slated to be closed unless officials can find some $700,000, which is what the airport estimates the FAA pays a private company to staff it with seven workers each year.
Coincidentally, Coburn’s 2012 list identifies one project that cost taxpayers that amount: the Pentagon is paying $700,000 to several companies to find a new way to make beef jerky.
When the airport cuts were announced earlier this month, the FAA at first proposed closing 189 air-traffic-control towers as part of its plan to cut $637 million under sequestration. The agency said it would keep open any towers if doing so would be in the country’s interest. It then said it would close 149 towers.
Besides Lakeland, towers are being shut at Naples Municipal, Boca Raton, New Smyrna Beach Municipal, Page Field in Fort Myers, North Perry in Hollywood, Leesburg International, Ocala International-Jim Taylor Field, Ormond Beach Municipal, Punta Gorda, Northeast Florida Regional in St. Augustine, Albert Whitted in St. Petersburg, Witham Field in Stuart and Space Coast Regional in Titusville.
Airport leaders in Punta Gorda, Naples and some of those other cities are threatening to sue to block the FAA’s action. Some of the cities also are considering trying to make up the costs themselves, no small task given their own strained budgets. Lakeland reportedly has received bids ranging from $365,000 to $376,000 a year.