© 2023 WGLT
NPR from Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Rep. Davis Heralds Federal Help For CIRA; Says Infrastructure Plan Misses The Mark

Dana Vollmer
U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis visited Central Illinois Regional Airport on Tuesday to hear about how the airport spent COVID relief dollars and to tout legislation to fill a staffing shortage of air traffic controllers.

Airports around the country, including Central Illinois Regional Airport (CIRA), are struggling with short staffing of air traffic controllers. A bipartisan bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis aims to address that.

Air traffic controllers contracted by the Federal Aviation Administration are one of several federal employee groups mandated to retire at age 56. Davis, a Taylorville Republican, said that takes people who want to keep working out of the field. The CONTROL Act would let retired controllers receive their full Social Security annuity payment while working at contract towers.

“It would allow them to choose a stipend before they're eligible for Social Security as they have now, or if they want to go back to work, go back to work,” Davis said during a visit Tuesday to CIRA in Bloomington. “We all know that there's a lot of work time left for most who are mandatorily asked to retire in their 50s.”

CIRA director Carl Olson said the FAA typically contracts seven or eight air traffic controllers in Bloomington-Normal. But he said the airport’s been down one controller for some time.

“Having a shortage of qualified air traffic controllers, especially here at Central Illinois Regional Airport, isn't so much a problem as it can be a contributing factor for frustration,” Olson said. “What happens is that when we are short staffed, as you would in any small business, the controllers who are on duty have to work longer hours, they have to work more days without a day off … It leads to fatigue, it just leads to an inappropriate work-life balance.”

Olson said the legislation is a no-brainer: retirees are fully qualified, have current medical clearance from the FAA, up-to-date licenses and a bounty of knowledge and experience. Plus, he said, many don’t want to retire so young.

COVID recovery funding

CIRA has purchased two new runway brooms with federal dollars through the federal CARES Act. Olson said both of the 18-foot broom trucks cost about $550,000—a price tag CIRA would struggle to cover without government support.

Olson said the equipment is needed to ensure the safety of planes landing and departing from the airport.

“Primary services have to be cleared in 30 minutes. We can't use any corrosive materials—salt or anything like that. The FAA kind of frowns when airplanes get rusty and have parts fall off," Olson said. "Unlike a roadway, where you can just plow it and be done, we have to get down as close to bare dry pavement as we can.”

Davis said federal investment in regional airports like CIRA kept these transportation hubs healthy, despite the challenges of COVID.

“Even in the midst of a pandemic, they didn't stop working,” Davis said. “They wanted to keep this airport open. They want to keep passengers like me who still traveled throughout the pandemic coming through this airport. But they also at the same time have to look at the long-term maintenance needs, and capital needs and equipment needs.”

Infrastructure deal

Davis said the infrastructure plan announced by President Joe Biden and a group of Democratic and Republican senators last week doesn’t place enough emphasis on the “traditional” investments voters want to see.

The infrastructure framework was hammered out behind closed doors at the Capitol and details of the $1.2 trillion plan are not yet public. Democrats want to couple spending on highways, bridges, ports and other transportation needs with a more ambitious “human infrastructure” plan that includes things like child care, home care giving and climate change mitigation.

Those “human infrastructure” elements have little GOP support. Davis said those dollars are needed elsewhere.

“It's about priorities. In that same plan, the administration set aside $50 billion to stand up a new agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce. That's why their plan is not an infrastructure plan. Otherwise, it would focus on the true infrastructure needs—just like our airports, our ports of entry, our locks and dams, our roads and our bridges. Those are the things that the American people feel (are) our infrastructure.”

Davis said the plan leaves traditional infrastructure “woefully underfunded.” The U.S. House passed it’s own transportation spending bill last week. No Republicans voted in favor of the $715 billion plan that Democrats see as a step toward the more sweeping infrastructure deal.

Davis said Republicans weren’t given a chance for bipartisan input on that bill, which he said put “$1 out of every $2 toward what (he) would consider New Green Deal priorities.”

Gubernatorial run

On another topic, Davis said claims he’s planning a run for the governor’s office remain rumors—at least for now.

He said future plans will depend on the outcome of new Democratic-drawn legislative maps, which Republicans are trying to get overturned.

Davis said he’s hopeful there’s more for him to do in Congress.

“I certainly hope that the Democrats look to me as somebody who's in line for chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in Washington. That's been my goal. I make no bones about it. But they're the ones that set the battlefield,” Davis said.

Davis said at age 51, he’s not ready to stop, adding he’s “leaving all his options open.”

We depend on your support to keep telling stories like this one. You – together with NPR donors across the country – create a more informed public. Fact by fact, story by story. Please take a moment to donate now and fund the local news our community needs. Your support truly makes a difference.

Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.
Related Content