EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - Employees at the William J. Hughes Technical Center fear they could be left out of work for the second time this year if Congress fails once again to extend the Federal Aviation Administration's operating authority.

That was the message that came from a town hall meeting Friday morning between tech center employees, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt and U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd. The three officials met with the employees to address their

concerns following a nearly two-week furlough of 640 tech center workers brought on after Congress failed to pass a bill extending the agency's operating authority.

The meeting was closed to the public. However, LaHood, Babbitt and LoBiondo addressed the media from a tech center hanger immediately following the discussion.

"We don't want this to ever happen again," LaHood said, adding that he's pushing for a bill that would extend operating authority for five or six years to provide the agency with increased stability.

Employees returned to work at the tech center Monday after Congress struck a deal that gave the FAA temporary operating authority through mid-September.

The partisan clash that prompted the shutdown began last month when U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, signaled his intention to include cuts in subsidies to rural airports in a bill that would have extended the

> agency's operating authority. The agency had been operating under a series of 20 short-term extensions since 2007 when the last long-term FAA funding bill expired.

The shutdown left 4,000 FAA employees out of work nationwide, more than 600 of whom worked at the tech center. An electronic sign at the tech center's gate still reads, "Welcome back, FAA employees." FAA contractors were also affected as stop-work orders were issued to 27 companies with contacts at the tech center.

Many of those companies were working on research and development of the NextGen Air Transportation System, a series of technologies which will overhaul the nation's system from ground-based to satellite-based.

"It's foundational work and you can't just turn it on and off,"

Babbitt said of the NextGen work taking place at the tech center. "We're not just going to throw on a switch in 2018. A waterfall of schedules have been delayed."

Earlier this week, LoBiondo introduced a bill that would provide backpay and related benefits to the FAA employees who were furloughed. The measure would not provide compensation to contracted employees, due to legal provisions, he said Friday.

"They didn't ask for this. They didn't bring this on," LoBiondo said of the tech center employees. "They are doing research not being done anywhere else in the country."

On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-NJ, and state Sen. Jim Whelan also visited the tech center and later spoke about the importance of long-term funding for the FAA.