By Brian Bullock/Staff Writer bbullock@santamariatimes.com Santa Maria Times | Posted: Thursday, July 28, 2011

Despite the political turmoil that has caused a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration, the Santa Maria Public Airport District Board of Directors will address construction bids for the second phase of its runway extension project when it meets tonight.

A political tug-of-war in Washington, D.C., has temporarily suspended the FAA’s operating authority and caused the administration to stop processing around $2.5 billion in airport construction grants and issue stop work orders to contractors on more than 150 airport projects.  Some of that money is earmarked for the Santa Maria project.

The airport board will consider authorizing General Manager Chris Hastert to apply for and accept the FAA grant that will allow completion of the runway project. It will also decide whether or not to award the second-phase contract to Granite Construction of Santa Maria.

Hastert said that even though the FAA currently doesn’t have the airport’s grant request or the authority to award it, he doesn’t expect the current political battle to delay the project.  “We’re lucky with our project because we opened bids on Friday the same day they ended authorization,” Hastert said of the administration. “I would hope they would sort it all out in 90 days.”

In the meantime, Hastert said it allows the airport staff to check out all the details of the construction bid before the project is officially awarded.

The airport is in the midst of an $11 million extension project for its main runway. The second phase of the construction project — extension of the runway pavement by 1,700 feet and relocation of the airport’s navigational aids for the Instrument Landing System — was expected to cost approximately $8 million and be finished sometime in October.

While the deadline remains the same, the construction costs have fallen since the project was first estimated.  The engineer’s estimate for construction of the runway was a little more than $6.1 million and the airport received four bids ranging from $5.38 million to $7.6 million.  Granite Construction, which handled the first phase of the project, supplied the lowest bid at $5,389,661.

“(The FAA) budget was approved so all the money is there but they’re not authorized to spend the money. The FAA wants to have their grants in place before Aug. 15,” Hastert said. “It may not result in any delay or if it does it may not be much.”

Even though the runway extension isn’t threatened by the uncertainty at the FAA, some Central Coast projects could be affected including an effort to seismically retrofit the Santa Maria airport’s traffic control tower.

Local projects endangered are the new terminal at the Santa Barbara Airport and a rehabilitation project at the San Luis Obispo County airport.

“Our airports on the Central Coast are engines for economic growth in our region. But funding for critical infrastructure improvements to improve safety and reduce congestion, many already underway, has been needlessly delayed,” Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, said in a statement Wednesday. “In tough economic times, this is simply unacceptable.”

Hastert said the FAA has been operating on temporary extensions since 2007 and this marks the first time the political wrangling has affected its ability to operate. He said he doesn’t feel it will alter the airport’s work in the long run.  “You just have to be flexible and once the grant is awarded you have to move forward,” he said.

The meeting begins at 7 p.m. today in the Airport Administration Building, 3217 Terminal Drive. The agenda also calls for the sharply divided airport board to make its second attempt at filling the seat left vacant by Director Ted Eckert’s death in June.