The House has approved legislation that seeks to accelerate approval of new runways at U.S. airports. The measure, passed without objection on July 9, would require that environmental reviews done by various federal agencies be carried out concurrently, rather than sequentially. It also mandates that the U.S. Dept. of Transportation set deadlines for completing those reviews, where practicable, but the legislation doesn't say how long the deadlines should be.

House transportation committee Chairman Young (Photo courtesy of the Office of Rep. Don Young)

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved a broader aviation bill last August that includes runway project review provisions that are similar to the House's.

The issue of congestion in the nation's airline system gained prominence early last year, and airport officials said it took too long to get needed capacity-adding runway projects approved. DOT Secretary Norman Mineta endorsed the idea of concurrent reviews. But project-approval "streamlining" became less of a priority after the Sept. 11 attacks and the decline in U.S. air traffic that followed.

The House bill would apply to runways, taxiways and other projects to add capacity at airports that had at least 1% of airline delays in the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) said there are 31 such airports.

Young said, "This legislation will not change everything overnight, but it will expedite the process of building airports, we think."

Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, the transportation committee's top Democrat, said concurrent environmental reviews are a good idea, but noted that a Federal Aviation Administration study found environmental issues aren't the main cause of the long approval time for runway projects. Instead, Oberstar said, FAA determined that "the major cause of delay is the time needed to complete the local political process mandated by state law and local ordinance."