U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx called the dispute over who will run Charlotte’s airport “an unnecessary mess,” and suggested that after almost two years a federal solution to the fight might not be near.
The 13-member Charlotte Airport Commission is set to meet again Wednesday night, even though the group is still blocked from running Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
The commission, its supporters and North Carolina’s congressional delegation have all turned to the Federal Aviation Administration, seeking a decision on whether the commission or City Council should be in charge of Charlotte’s airport.
But in his first public comments on the issue since being named secretary of transportation last year, Foxx, a former Charlotte mayor, gave no timeline for when the FAA might decide. He said it would be best for local leaders to resolve the impasse, though negotiations appear stalled.
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“I think it behooves everybody to have the community decide,” Foxx told the Observer in an interview in Washington. “Procedurally, it’s an odd situation. But let’s not sugarcoat the fact that it’s a mess. And an unnecessary mess at that.”
Asked if a ruling from the FAA might come soon, Foxx said, “They are doing their work and when it’s done we’ll know about it.”
The commission was created in July 2013. Since then, commission Chairman Robert Stolz and North Carolina’s congressional representatives have sent letters asking the FAA, which falls under Foxx and the Department of Transportation, to decide whether the commission can run the airport.
Commission supporters have accused Foxx of slowing the FAA’s decision in order to keep City Council in control. As mayor, Foxx was opposed to creating a new authority to run Charlotte Douglas. But the DOT has said Foxx recused himself from the case because of his ethics agreement. He also refrained from commenting on the airport for his first year in office.
“I think he’s probably taking an active role in delaying the decision,” said state Sen. Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg Republican and one of the commission’s original supporters. “This is ridiculous.”
Convoluted commission case
Beyond infuriating commission supporters, the FAA’s timing could affect the outcome of a city lawsuit to block the commission. The judge in that case has said he needs the FAA to rule before he can.
The Charlotte Airport Commission’s tangled history stretches back to early 2013, when the idea of taking control of Charlotte Douglas from the City Council and giving it to a new, regional body first surfaced. Supporters said the move would free the airport from city meddling, while opponents called it a naked power grab.
The N.C. General Assembly created the body over strong Charlotte and Democratic opposition. The city sued and a judge blocked the commission from using any of its powers. A fight that kept lawmakers scrambling to pass a bill after midnight last year has shifted into the slow grind of the courts and federal bureaucracy.
Charlotte Douglas remains an independently funded city department. While the airport’s long-term governance remains up in the air, airport leaders are pressing ahead with $1 billion worth of expansion plans, including new hourly parking decks, more parking spaces, a complete terminal renovation, a new domestic concourse and a new, expanded entrance roadway.
City leaders are also working with the airport on a plan to spur large-scale development on thousands of undeveloped acres around and on airport property.
Meanwhile, it’s still possible that control of Charlotte Douglas could shift abruptly from City Council to the commission, which includes seven members appointed by the city and one each from Mecklenburg and the five surrounding counties.
Former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon and Gov. Pat McCrory had been working on negotiating a compromise between the city and state, before Cannon’s arrest and conviction on federal corruption charges earlier this year.
Those efforts don’t appear to have been revived. A spokeswoman for Mayor Dan Clodfelter said he hasn’t had any recent talks with McCrory about the airport.
In a statement, a spokesman for McCrory said the governor “has offered to work with the new mayor in order to help resolve this issue” and that the decision should be made locally, but didn’t offer specifics.
Frustration and pending lawsuit
The delays and lack of clarity about the commission’s future have led some commissioners to grumble about their status.
“We’re not a commission, we’re a crowd of folks sitting around,” Cameron Harris, a commissioner from Charlotte, said at the commission’s July meeting. Harris couldn’t be reached Tuesday.
No hearings are scheduled in the city’s lawsuit seeking to block the commission permanently. But attorneys representing the city and the commission said the judge in the case has asked them to file briefs, which are due next week. A hearing could then be set in the coming weeks.
Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann said the city is asking the judge to block the commission on constitutional grounds, with the argument that the state improperly preempted the federal government’s power by transferring the control of the airport.
Lawyers representing the commission are seeking to have the injunction that blocks it from running Charlotte Douglas lifted.
Asked if the FAA would wait until there’s a local compromise to make a decision, Foxx said that would be the best outcome.
“I’m saying it’s being reviewed,” Foxx said. “But there’s no question that the best result would be folks being on the same page.”