TxDOT votes to spend $2M to keep air traffic control towers open - MyFoxAustin.com | KTBC Fox 7 | News, Weather, Sports

TxDOT votes to spend $2M to keep air traffic control towers open

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Highway Department Commissioners at TxDOT voted to spend $2 million in order to keep more than a dozen Texas air traffic control towers open.

The sites were slated for closure because of the federal budget impasse on Capitol Hill. Five are located in Central Texas.

The tower here in Georgetown was built five years ago in response to a mid-air collision and several near misses.

Thursday instead of preparing to shut it down on Sunday the April 7, controllers are getting ready for another day watching the skies above.

The vote by the State Transportation Commission was never really in doubt.

TxDOT will use $2 million from its aviation budget to keep open air traffic control towers at 14 small airports slated for closure by federal budget cutbacks.

"It's not going to affect the maintenance budget or the construction budget, these are dollars dedicated, federal and state funds, towards aviation," said Fred Underwood of the Texas Transpiration Commission.

Texarkana was added to Thursday to a list, which includes Central Texas airports in Georgetown, San Marcos, College Station, New Braunfels and Waco.

"It's a serious, serious safety concern," said Gordon Richardson with the TxDOT Aviation Advisory Committee.

Most of those who testified at the downtown Austin hearing said safety justifies the use of state money to keep the towers open for the next 90 days.

"To have the tower ...disappear, from our community would simply be devastating," said Victoria County Judge Don Pozzi.

It was argued that sites like San Marcos are used by the military for refueling as well as staging areas for the DEA and Border Patrol. But there was a suggestion that list could be smaller.

"Look at each airport individually because not all airports need this money taken away from taxpayers," said David Goad a community activists from New Braunfels.

Other critics claim TxDOT is subsidizing a rich man's hobby and is taking money away from road projects and other state funding needs. Airport managers disputed that as political rhetoric.

"The business aircraft that are using our airports represents the companies, they're business tools for the companies that are employing people who buy cars and use the roads, that's what it all comes down to," said Collin Co. Regional Airport manager Ken Wiegand.

The TxDOT vote comes as a new FAA study is released that indicates some of the airport towers targeted for closure have not reduced accident rates.

"It's no big deal until you lose your first life, and once the first life is lost then it's a big deal again," said Sarah Hinton the Georgetown Airport General Manager.

According to Hinton, the tower has helped create more than 200 jobs and generated a $33 million local economic impact.

"There was no way we could come up with $600,000 annually to keep our open. Our airport tower open, so it was a huge move on behalf of the state of Texas," said Hinton.

Communities with the towers on the TxDOT list will also have to put up some cash. For example the Georgetown City Council will vote Friday to authorize spending about $16,000 a month to match the money from the state.

The TxDOT cash is just a $2 million band-aide, which is why the Highway Commission directed staff to work on contingency plans in case the budget fight on Capitol Hill is not resolved over the next 90 days.

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