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Terminal project uncertain

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

ALBANY, Ga. -- While President Obama is likely to sign legislation this weekend that will allow the Federal Aviation Administration to resume full operations, the future of a new terminal project in Albany is anything but certain.

Nearly two weeks after the FAA ran out of operating funds, forcing the furloughs of thousands of government employees and the loss of millions of dollars in airline taxes, two senators voted to approve a House resolution restoring funding until mid-September under a seldom-used "consent agreement" between Democrat and Republican senators.

The Southwest Georgia Regional Airport is currently reviewing eight bids that have come in on the construction of a new terminal at the facility. The project is budgeted at $15.8 million.

That terminal and the adjusted parking and landscaping that will come with it are set to be funded on a 76/24 split, with the lion's share coming from the FAA, Airport Director Yvette Aehle said.

With FAA operations set to resume Monday, Aehle said she's eager to speak with FAA officials in Atlanta to get their take on the project and how the FAA's funding priorities may have changed under the bill.

"We're still in competition. They haven't told us anything. I don't think they (FAA Atlanta) knew what the money situation was at the (national) level," Aehle said. "I think this next week, when they get back, they'll have a better idea of what the situation and be able say,

'Hey, we have this much money to spend before the end of the fiscal year.' Now whether the terminal rates high enough, I still don't know that yet."

The remainder of the funding will come from special local option sales tax revenues approved by the voters last November.

Aehle said she intends to go before the Albany City Commission next month in the hope that they will award the bid and move the project ahead before Congress reconsiders funding for the remainder of the fiscal year.

As approved by Congress, the bill eliminates $16.5 million in air-service subsidies to 13 rural communities. The only Georgia airport affected by the subsidy cuts is Athens. Albany was not on the list.

FAA employees could return to work and payments for airport construction projects could resume as soon as Monday if Obama signs the bill over the weekend, transportation officials said.

Republicans had insisted on the subsidy cuts as their price for restoring the FAA to full operation. But the bill also includes language that gives Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood the authority to continue subsidized service to the 13 communities if he decides any of those services are necessary. Democrats said they expect the administration to effectively waive or negate the cuts.

The shutdown began when much of Washington was transfixed by the stalemate over raising the government's debt ceiling. During that time, the FAA furloughed 4,000 workers but kept air traffic controllers and most safety inspectors on the job. Forty airport safety inspectors worked without pay, picking up their own travel expenses. Some 70,000 workers on construction-related jobs on airport projects from Palm Springs, Calif., to New York City were idled as the FAA couldn't pay for the work.

But airline passengers in the busy travel season hardly noticed any changes. Airlines continued to work as normal, but they were no longer authorized to collect federal ticket taxes at a rate of $30 million a day. For a few lucky ticket buyers, prices dropped. But for most, nothing changed because airlines raised their base prices to match the tax.

Some passengers will now be eligible for tax refunds if they bought their tickets before July 23 and their travel took place during the shutdown.

As the debt ceiling crisis passed and Congress headed home for its August recess without resolving the standoff, Obama spoke out Wednesday and LaHood urged Congress to return to deal with the issues. Obama expressed dismay that Congress would allow up to $1.2 billion in tax revenue to go out the door -- the amount that could have been lost by the time lawmakers return in September.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced the deal Thursday afternoon, saying it would put 74,000 transportation and construction workers back to work.

"This agreement does not resolve the important differences that still remain," said Reid, D-Nev. "But I believe we should keep Americans working while Congress settles its differences, and this agreement will do exactly that."

Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma won't attempt to block passage of the bill when it comes up on Friday, spokesman John Hart said. Coburn blocked several attempts by Democrats to pass an extension bill without the subsidy cuts.

The partisan standoff that led to the shutdown began last month when Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, signaled his intention to attach the subsidy cuts to a bill to extend the FAA's operating authority through mid-September. The agency has been operating under a series of 20 short-term extensions since 2007, when the last long-term FAA funding bill expired.

Senate Democrats complained that Republicans were breaking with precedent by using an extension bill to enact policy changes that hadn't been agreed upon. Even Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas called the measure a "procedural hand grenade." Senators refused to pass the House bill, saying to do so would be giving into legislative blackmail and inviting Republicans to up the ante on the next extension bill.

Obama, who had scolded Congress on Wednesday for not solving the standoff, expressed relief.

"I'm pleased that leaders in Congress are working together to break the impasse involving the FAA so that tens of thousands of construction workers and others can go back to work," Obama said in a statement.

Both the House and Senate passed long-term funding bills for the FAA earlier this year, but negotiations on resolving differences and finalizing those bills are stalemated. The biggest holdup is a labor provision in the House long-term bill. Republicans want to overturn a National Mediation Board rule approved last year that allows airline and railroad employees to form a union by a simple majority of those voting. Under the old rule, workers who didn't vote were treated as "no" votes.

"The House has made it clear that the anti-worker piece is a priority for them and they also put us on notice that they don't intend to give in," said Vince Morris, a spokesman for Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of a committee that oversees FAA. "So we are bracing for a new fight in September."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.