MARQUETTE - U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, said he is "deeply troubled by sequestration" and its resulting arbitrary budget cuts like funding for the air traffic control tower at Sawyer International Airport will "hurt northern Michiganders and Americans in the long run."
After Congress could not agree to a budget deal by March 1, mandatory federal sequestration budget cuts totaling $85 billion took effect, including $637 million cut from the Federal Aviation Administration budget.
Benishek's comments were from a recent letter to Marquette County Board Chairman Gerald Corkin, who had written to Benishek about the Federal Aviation Administration's March 22 announcement it would close 149 of its 250 air traffic control towers administered under the Contract Tower Program, including the tower at K.I. Sawyer.
The air traffic control tower at Sawyer International Airport is one of about 150 on the Federal Aviation Administration’s list to no longer be funded after June 15, in an effort to meet sequester budget cuts that began March 1. (Journal file photo by John Pepin)
The Marquette County Board will consider Benishek's letter as an informational item when the panel meets in regular session at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
"I am deeply troubled by sequestration as Washington knew that they had a year to prevent this from occurring. I believe that politicians of both parties need to put the American people first and put forth a budget that (sets) our country on the right path," Benishek wrote. "Arbitrary cuts such as to the Contract Tower Program hurt northern Michiganders and Americans in the long run."
On April 5, the FAA said it would delay the tower closures until June 15, allowing the agency more time to "attempt to resolve multiple legal challenges to the closure decisions" and for the FAA and airports to "execute the changes to the National Airspace System."
A phased four-week closure process was halted.
"This has been a complex process and we need to get this right," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. "Safety is our top priority. We will use this additional time to make sure communities and pilots understand the changes at their local airports."
The FAA said about 50 airport authorities and other stakeholders had indicated they may fund the tower operations themselves, joining the FAA's non-Federal Contract Tower Program.
Postponing the cessation of tower funding until June 15 was expected to allow the FAA time to facilitate the transition.
In addition to the legal efforts mounted to try to block the closures, lawmakers and airport communities protested the FAA's eliminating funding for the towers.
Benishek said while the FAA claims the tower closures are needed to help absorb its sequestration budget cut, Congressional researchers determined the Contract Tower Program constitutes 28 percent of the air traffic control towers across the country.
"This frustrates me because it seems like Washington never cuts the bloated bureaucracy, but instead removes people on the ground providing necessary services to our citizens," Benishek wrote.
Benishek said prior to the closure postponement announcement, he joined two senators and 29 representatives in signing a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, with a response requested by March 29.
The letter sought a detailed assessment of effects tower closures would have on the structural integrity of aviation infrastructure, other alternatives that were considered and the cost to taxpayers of all FAA conventions, conferences and trips organized and paid for fiscal years 2013-2015.
When Huerta did not respond by the deadline, Benishek said he joined 46 others in sending a second letter "to implore the FAA to adopt a plan that would not shutter the contract towers, which would disproportionately affect control towers in rural areas such as Marquette County."
Benishek said as "an amateur pilot and a frequent flyer" he realizes the importance control towers have and he will "continue to fight for aviation programs that connect northern Michigan with the country and the world."
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org