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Acquiring a nonstop flight to Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. is one of the City of San Antonio’s biggest priorities during this year’s Congressional session. Other federal priorities include increasing military protection, expanding the military footprint, and transportation funding.
City Council was briefed on the proposed Federal Legislative Program for the 115th Congress Wednesday. The program draft takes into consideration anticipated federal priorities of the incoming administration under President-elect Donald Trump. The new session of Congress begins Jan. 3, 2017 and extends through Jan. 3, 2019.
The need for new air routes for the San Antonio International Airport isn’t new. According to former Mayor Henry Cisneros, the airport’s dim spotlight in the region is “the achilles heel of our future.” Mayor Ivy Taylor and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff are teaming up to put together a task force to research and investigate the deficits of the city’s airport and determine future needs. The City recently named a new Aviation Department director, retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Russell “Russ” J. Handy.
The San Antonio to D.C. flight would bolster economic ties between both areas and increase business and tourism growth, the City’s Government and Public Affairs Department Director Jeff Coyle told Council.
“There’s no question of demand for this flight,” Coyle said. “Reagan is the busiest destination without nonstop service – 177 people fly here and back per day.”
Acquiring the flight is far easier said than done because of the “slot” and “perimeter” rules designed to limit the number of aircrafts that fly into the airport. In the 1960s, these rules were put in place to support the development of Dulles International Airport and reduce congestion and noise near the D.C. area.
“This route is different since it’s controlled by Congress and it takes an act of Congress to be able to get that flight,” Councilman Joe Krier (D9) told the Rivard Report.
There is opportunity for Congress to consider exemptions to the perimeter rule because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization was extended to Sept. 30, 2017. This gives Congress during the 115th session time to consider specific issues in the FAA bill, which includes slot and perimeter rules.
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“The FAA’s bill proposed last session was pretty controversial for other reasons like privatizing air traffic control and things that were big Congressional fights,” Coyle said. He added that he expects the FAA bill to be a high priority item for the new Congress since there are related, important items at stake, such as specific regulations and capital spending for all airports in the country.
The military presence in San Antonio is one “distinguishing factor” that Coyle believes can help Congress make an exception for San Antonio when the time to get one of those “competitive slots” arrives.
There are currently 15 major commands located in the city, including the San Antonio Military Medical Center (SAMMC), the nation’s largest Department of Defense hospital and a trauma center providing health care to more than 250,000 veterans and their dependents. Lackland Air Force Base provides training to U.S. Air Force and allied nation pilots. Many skilled Air Force veterans now work in the city’s growing civilian cybersecurity sector. Those who support the growth of San Antonio’s cybersecurity industry point to the presence of the 24th and 25th Air Force and the NSA.
“We have nonstops to Baltimore and to Dulles – and yet the military, like most people, would prefer to fly into the heart of Washington and be five minutes from downtown and the Pentagon,” Coyle said. “They’re willing to deal with connections, delays, and missed flights to be right in the heart of the city rather than flying an hour out. There’s huge demand there.”
Thousands of military personnel from San Antonio go to Washington, D.C. throughout the year, Krier told the Rivard Report. As things stand right now, they either have to make one or two connections in a city that offers a nonstop connection to D.C. or they have to fly to Baltimore or Dulles.
“If we want to help our military family use their time more efficiently, we need to help them get a nonstop,” Krier said. “We have been advised repeatedly by members of Congress … The first thing they always ask us is, ‘Do you have an airline that has committed to fly the planes if we give you the route?’ And our answer has been, ‘Well, we’re working on it but we don’t have one.’”
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Coyle told the Rivard Report that airlines are well aware of the demand.
“A number of carriers that already service San Antonio have an interest, and we continue to talk to them,” he said. “If an airline sees demand for the route, they’ll offer it. Air Canada saw a demand for a Toronto nonstop and so they added it.”
Krier said he’s in talks with John Montford, who sits on the Southwest Airlines board.
“John has volunteered to help us get the right meeting with the guy at Southwest who makes the decisions on new routes,” Krier said, adding that in order for the new route to be successful, the City must convince any airline that it will be able to sell enough seats in order to get the backing.
Another federal priority that was discussed among Council members was the topic of transportation funding.
Councilman Ray Lopez (D6) said he is anxious about transportation, but that he is ready to work with the rest of Council to craft the right message in order to get federal backing for high-speed rail and all mass transit initiatives.
“Let’s concentrate on the delegation that controls the appropriate initiatives that we want, and talk to all those in the transportation department,” Lopez said.
The East coast corridor gets a lot of funding for transportation because of its older infrastructure and rail initiatives, he said, but Texas should not be left behind.
He gave the example of a possible high-speed rail connection between San Antonio and Monterrey, Mexico. Krier said that this initiative has been talked about for several years and that there is strong support for the idea. The issue, however, lies in finding someone who is willing to build it.
“That’s one reason why we’re talking to the high-speed rail people between Dallas and Houston to propose a connection,” Krier said. “We could also have it stop at College Station at A&M and then have a leg come over to San Antonio. What worries me is that if Dallas and Houston get a high-speed rail route (that connects them), it will be a huge economic boost for them and we will be left out.”
Several Council members stressed that new alliances must be made in response to the incoming Trump Administration and connections with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), and others must be strengthened.
“If there was ever a time to protect our interests in Washington, it’s now,” said Councilman Cris Medina (D7).
Other legislative issues that City staff recommended in the program included: expanding public safety enhancements, opposing any changes to the tax-exempt status of municipal bonds, supporting the extension and expansion of tax credits for businesses that hire in economically distressed areas, seeking a historic designation of San Antonio’s urban core, supporting a federal funding increase for the Spanish-colonial Missions, and more. To read the full list of priorities, click here.
Several Council members expressed concern over specific programs in place that receive federal funding and might be cut by new federal leadership. Other issues brought to the table included changes in immigration policy and the implementation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
“There are other things that can happen as the dust settles and things are played out,” Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) said. “We will have to protect our city and our citizens.”
City Council will vote to approve the Federal Legislative Program on Jan. 12, 2017.