To the Editor:
Senator Jack Reed brought the U.S. Senate’s Chairperson of its Appropriations Committee, Barbara Mikulski, of Maryland, to T.F. Green Airport seemingly to put her rubber stamp on the runway extension. In her remarks (quoted by the Providence Journal), she let a big cat out of the bag. The cost of improvements is going to be $250 million. (According to the Journal), she has found that $110 million of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funding “is important.” OK, but who controls the $110 million? And what did she do the last time the Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, cut the Airport Improvement Program from the federal budget last year – leaving the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) sputtering for funding to build the extension? What happens if the $110 million does not show up in Rhode Island this year?
According to Senator Mikulski’s website, she fought to use the funds, originally slated for RIAC last year, to keep control towers at small airports in Maryland open. The House of Representatives Republicans who control FAA funding proposals wanted to slash and burn the FAA Airport Improvement budget. Senator Mikulski went along with that idea. This was the money otherwise set to go to T.F. Green and other hub airports. It was diverted. In Maryland, Easton Airport – with no passenger service – kept its control tower. Frederick Airport, also without passenger service, kept its newly built control tower as well. Hagerstown, with about as many passengers as Block Island, kept its control tower while RIAC ripped up Block Island’s navigation system for lack of funds. Block Island has no control tower. Senator Mikulski also kept Martin State Airport’s control tower open. No passenger service. Salisbury kept its control tower open. With 144,000 passengers per year, it is about one-tenth the size of T.F. Green.
So what does Senator Mikulski do now? Does she go back to enjoin Congress to close the control towers at her state’s smaller airports that she fought so hard to keep open in order to fund T.F. Green’s presumed need for $110 million? Many readers will be able to see through this political nonsense! Of course she will push to keep her control towers open – raiding the money otherwise planned for projects like T.F. Green’s expansion. We in Rhode Island are not idiots!
So then why did Senator Reed lead Senator Mikulski around T.F. Green Airport? As the Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, she has no power to introduce spending legislation. Only the House of Representatives can do that. However, she can put a hand on the steering wheel to get some goodies for her voters – perhaps even for us in Rhode Island. But the way FAA funding is currently going, she can’t have it both ways. Either the money goes to T.F. Green to extend the runway or to small regional airports to keep control towers open, and save jobs. No Maryland politician in her right mind is going to fight that battle for Rhode Island. She will endeavor to save a few jobs in Maryland and keep those marginal control towers open – even though the FAA wants them closed.
Here’s my theory as to why Senator Mikulski visited us in Warwick: Senator Reed needs some political cover. Remember, he faces a potential Republican challenger this fall. So, if the House of Representatives maintains the status quo – which it probably will – the money goes to staffing small airport control towers rather than extending runways. But Senator Reed can still say, “We tried really hard, and even brought the Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee to Rhode Island to take a look.” Unfortunately, Senator Mikulski can’t change the House Republicans’ predilection for keeping small control towers open rather than improve airports. Nor does she have any political reason to put T.F. Green Airport ahead of her Maryland small airport control towers – and jobs – at Easton Airport, Frederic Airport, Hagerstown Airport, Martin State Airport, and the Salisbury Wicomico Regional Airport.
I really do suspect that Senator Mikulski’s visit to T.F. Green Airport is a cruel political campaign trick. As reported on her website: “Throughout the last year, Senator Mikulski and Maryland’s Congressional delegation have fought for Maryland’s regional airports, which play a key role in maintaining Maryland’s robust economy.” The problem for us is that RIAC is throwing all its extra money into the Buckeye Brook swamp, and the relocation of ball fields to an asthma pit, leaving nothing to actually extend the runway unless the $110 million and a whole lot more comes through. I view Senator Mikulski’s visit as a warning to hold on to our wallets!