Republican House and Senate negotiators have agreed on legislation to extend federal aviation programs for four years, with modest hikes in airport construction grants plus a new fund of as much as $500 million a year for airport security projects.

Source: House transportation and Infrastructure Committee; House and Senate Appropriations Committee
Modest Gains. Aid would top out at $3.7 billion.

But the measure still must pass the full House and Senate and there’s a major roadblock. Although Republican conferees filed the agreement, no Democrats signed it, mainly because of a provision that would permit some air traffic controller jobs to be contracted out. "In the wee hours of the night...the conference committee leadership bowed to pressure of the White House," contends John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which strongly opposes the provision.

The House didn’t vote on the measure before it left July 25 for its August recess. With the storm swirling over the controller issue, it was unclear whether the Senate would act before September. Is there a scenario under which the bill might pass? "I don’t see one right now," says a Senate staffer, who contends that it’s "up to the administration and the Republicans." Adds Jim Berard, spokesman for House transportation committee Democrats: "It’s a real mess."

But if the controller matter can be resolved, the bill’s funding levels and other elements that are important to construction may survive. The legislation, titled "Vision 100–Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act," would be the successor to AIR-21, the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act, which was signed into law in 2000.

Key Elements of
Aviation Legislation
•Aviation Improvement Grants hiked $47 million in 2004, $100 million a year after that.
•Continues AIR-21 protections to ensure user fees go for airport construction and other aviation programs.
•Authorizes $500 million annually from security fees for new Aviation Security Capital Fund. But of that total, only $250 million per year would be guaranteed.
•Includes provisions to 'streamline' reviews of airport capacity projects, such as runways.
•Expands use of design-build beyond current seven pilot projects.
Source: House Transportation and Infrastructureccommittee; Conference Report, H.R. 2115

"There are a lot of good things for the transportation construction industry in there," says David Bauer, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association’s vice president for government relations.

Under the agreement, which Republicans announced on July 25, Airport Improvement Program construction grants would rise. "That’s a great thing," says Jim Singer, Parsons Corp.’s aviation division manager. "It’s really necessary too. We’ve got a lot of airports out there that are...‘worn’ would be a polite term for it," he adds. AIP would get $3.4 billion in 2004, up only $47 million from this year. But the total then would climb by $100 million in each of the next three years, topping out at $3.7 billion in 2007.

In another key provision, conferees retained AIR-21’s protections that aim to ensure that aviation user fees are spent on aviation programs. "One could conclude that if the clock wasn’t broke, they didn’t try to fix it," says ARTBA’s Bauer.

The new bill’s AIP gains are small, compared with AIR-21’s 64% jump over its predecessor. But Todd Hauptli, senior vice president for legislative affairs with the American Association of Airport Executives and Airports Council International-North America, says, "In a year with $500-billion budget deficits, to receive guaranteed funding [of $3.4 billion to $3.7 billion] is a significant victory for airports."

Lawmakers also authorized a new $500-million-per-year Aviation Security Capital Fund, financed by passenger security fees. But only half of that yearly total would be guaranteed. The fund would help meet security needs that airports peg at $3 billion to $5 billion. Airports also have worried about the increased amount of AIP aid that has gone for security. In 2002, AIP security grants totaled $561 million, up from $56 million in 2001.

The package has provisions to expedite environmental approvals of runways and other capacity projects. Peter Loughlin, the Associated General Contractors’ executive director for government affairs and federal markets, says those "are good provisions [for] moving crucial projects forward without unnecessary delay."

The bill has a provision to widen use of design-build on airport work beyond seven pilot projects now.