Legislation to renew airport construction grants and other Federal Aviation Administration programs is coming into sharper focus. Senate commerce committee leaders unveiled a draft bill May 3 that would provide $15.8 billion for airport grants over four years. It also makes some changes in aviation program financing but rejects major shifts the Bush administration proposed in February, such as phasing out the passenger ticket tax. FAA programs are due to expire Sept. 30.

The proposal has clout behind it. Its sponsor is aviation subcommittee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). Other backers are aviation panel ranking Republican Trent Lott (Miss.), commerce committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and commerce’s top Republican, Alaska’s Ted Stevens. Amendments are likely in committee and on the floor, says Brian Deery, senior director of the Associated General Contractors’ highway and transportation division. But he adds, “I think that this is what the Senate bill’s going to largely look like.”

The key construction issue is how much funding there will be for FAA’s Airport Improvement Program. Its grants help build runways and other projects. The Senate proposal authorizes $3.8 billion for AIP in 2008, rising $100 million a year to $4.1 billion in 2011. Funds are subject to annual appropriations. AIP’s 2007 appropriation is $3.5 billion.

“At least they’re putting more money into AIP,” says Deery.  He says AGC’s big concern was that AIP would take “a big hit” because much of the aviation bill talk has been about air-traffic-control improvements. The Bush administration proposed cuts in AIP.

Industry groups were disappointed that the Senate plan freezes PFCs at $4.50, except for a six-airport test.

Industry wants a hike in the $4.50 limit on passenger facility charges, another prime infrastructure funding source. PFC collections will total $2.68 billion this year, FAA estimates. Airports Council International-North America favors a $7.50 PFC cap. But the Senate bill holds the limit at $4.50, except at six airports under a test program. “We’re very disappointed that the Senate missed an opportunity to help all airports expand for the benefit of airline passengers,” says Debby McElroy, ACI-NA senior vice president for government affairs. 

In the House, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is still aiming to have a bill introduced by the Memorial Day recess, a spokesman says.