A bill to extend the Federal Aviation Administration programs, including the agency’s airport infrastructure grants, through 2023 has cleared an important hurdle with overwhelming approval by the House. Construction officials are focusing intently on the legislation because it is one of the few major infrastructure measures with a chance of enactment this year.

With the House’s passage of the bill on April 27 by a convincing 383-13 margin, attention turns to the Senate. In that chamber, a bipartisan, four-year FAA bill cleared committee last June but it has been in a holding pattern since then as lawmakers waited for the House to act.

The House-passed bill would freeze authorizations for FAA’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants at their current $3.35-billion level through fiscal year 2023. That disappointed airport and construction officials, who had sought higher totals.

Industry groups also had hoped that the House would remove the ceiling on passenger facility charges (PFC), which brought in about $3.3 billion last year for airport construction projects. But amendments to boost AIP and remove the PFC cap didn’t make it into the final version of the House legislation.

Airports Council International-North America CEO Kevin Burke and American Association of Airport Executives CEO Todd Haupti said the bill “misses a significant opportunity to provide airports with the resources they require to repair aging infrastructure, make needed investments in their facilities to accommodate rising passenger and cargo volume, and enhance air service competition for the benefit of passengers.”

Still, the House measure has a potentially bright silver lining—a new five-year, $5.3-billion infrastructure grant program aimed at rural non-hub airports. The grants wouldn’t be part of AIP, whose funds are distributed via both formula and discretionary mechanisms. Instead, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation would select all of the rural grant winners based on various criteria. The rural slant meshes with a priority the Trump administration has placed on rural infrastructure. 

Jay Hansen, National Asphalt Pavement Association executive vice president, is encouraged by the House action. “It’s not like we’re high-fiving on the bill, but it’s progress,” Hansen says. “Now it’s up to the Senate to do their work.”

Observers see the new rural airport grant dollars as a plus. “There’s certainly a need for it out there,” says Jim Tymon, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials chief operating officer. “It is nice to see … more of a focus on the rural side, non-hub side.”

Industry officials prefer to see a rural airport funding hike go through the established AIP program because it would funnel aid more quickly to airports and construction firms. Setting up a new FAA program and reviewing applications would consume much more time. Steve Hall, American Council of Engineering Companies vice president for government affairs, says: “I think we can work with the House construct and make improvements as we go forward. And if this is a way of getting more money into the aviation system, then let’s make it work.”

Despite the House bill’s flat AIP funding and retention of the PFC limit, fiscal 2018 looks like a boon year for federal airport funding. Authorizations are subject to annual appropriations and the recently enacted 2018 omnibus spending package contains a $1-billion appropriations injection for airport grants. That addition raises this year’s airport infrastructure funding to more than $4.3 billion.

Construction and transportation groups are pleased that the House bill covers six years, because it would provide more funding certainty than they’ve seen in recent years for major projects and multiyear capital programs. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) noted that since the last long-term bill was enacted in February 2012, there have been five extensions. The latest stopgap was enacted on March 23 as part of the omnibus package. It expires on Sept. 30.

“We’ve been bouncing around here trying to get a bill done for a number of years,” says Tymon. After working under the stopgaps, he says, “The community is pretty hungry for getting a long-term bill done and getting it done quickly.”

Eyes on the Senate

One obstacle for the House FAA bill fell away on Feb. 27, when Shuster abandoned his proposal to spin off FAA’s air-traffic control operations into a new non-federal organization. That plan was in an FAA measure that Shuster’s committee approved last June. But it failed to win enough votes for full House approval.

The next move will be up to the Senate. There has been no major progress in that chamber on FAA legislation since last June, when the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved a four-year FAA measure. One positive element for construction groups is that the Senate panel’s version boosts AIP in annual steps, ending up at $3.75 billion in its last year. On the other hand, the Senate committee’s bill also holds the PFC limit at $4.50, where it has been since 2000.

A Senate aide told ENR before the House vote that lawmakers there hope to get a long-term reauthorization done by August. Hall says, “I think the Senate really needed to see the House resolve the air-traffic control issue.” With that matter settled, he adds, “The resounding vote, huge bipartisan margin, I think, really now puts a lot of focus and pressure on the Senate to get going.”

As construction and airport groups look ahead, they will be pushing for a bill with increased AIP numbers and the PFC ceiling removed. “It’s not over,” Hansen says. “We are going all-in to try to do those two things on the Senate side.”

The House bill also has broader disaster-mitigation provisions. Shuster said they would direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to put more emphasis on pre-disaster planning. He said, “Investing more in mitigating disasters, before they strike, is common sense.”