Politics

States’ rights fight takes off in runway access debate

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter

States’ rights issues were featured in Congress again Wednesday as House Democrats and Republicans battled over whether local or federal authorities should make the final decision on the use of public airport runways.

At a hearing, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure debated a Federal Aviation Administration recommendation to eliminate any new “through-the-fence” agreements, pacts made between airports and the property-owners next to them allowing the residents to use the airport runways.

Chairman James Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat, said safety is the issue of top importance when it comes to through-the-fence agreements.

“I think the cornerstone is making changes for the future while leaving existing agreements in place,” Oberstar said at the hearing.

Lang, the FAA’s acting associate administrator for airports, backed up the FAA’s recommendation for a complete elimination of any future through-the-fence agreements by saying many local pilots simply don’t comply with any of the safety or runway regulations the FAA has in place. She doesn’t think any kind of signs or pilot education will alleviate those problems.

“We’ve really worked to try to drive federal investments to meet FAA standards so a pilot flying into an airport has a uniform experience,” Lang said.

But that hasn’t been enough, Lang said. There have been several examples, she said, of pilots and local airports breaking rules for various reasons, and she doesn’t think they’ll ever stop.

Missouri Republican Rep. Sam Graves, who is sponsoring a bill that opposes the FAA’s newly proposed regulations, agrees that safety is a major concern but thinks that it’s up to local authorities to determine if they want to allow through-the-fence agreements. He said the FAA hasn’t done a good enough job regulating affairs like these in the past and that he thinks the agency is overstepping its boundaries.

“Where do you draw the line?” Graves asked. “Where should the federal government’s jurisdiction stop? How far away? Two miles? Three miles?”

Graves said the current system doesn’t force, under any circumstances, states or cities with eligible airports to execute through-the-fence agreements. It’s currently optional to states and local authorities, Graves said, while further arguing that it’s unfair for those who don’t like through-the-fence agreements to ban them for everyone else nationwide.

Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader, who isn’t a member of the committee but addressed it at the hearing Wednesday, broke from the Democrats’ stance in his remarks, advocating for a reasonable solution to appease both sides. Schrader represents Oregon’s Fifth Congressional District, which currently has two airports that allow through-the-fence agreements with residents in the area. Schrader spoke about the experience of one of those airports.

“Since 1976, Independence Airport has been the heart of the community,” Schrader said. “Each resident has chosen to live there and has invested in the community. The 213 houses in Independence Air Park, I think, can serve as a model for how residential through-the-fence agreements can and should work.”