Congress approves funding boost for state and local airports

Jim Fahey, Director of Government Relations
APWA Washington Office

After a three-year effort, a series of temporary funding extensions, and a six-month funding lapse, new federal dollars for airport and aviation infrastructure programs once again this spring will begin flowing to state and local airport programs.

On March 8, the Senate gave final approval, 82 to 17, to the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR-21), a three-year authorization of programs and funds administered by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), including the Airport Improvement Program (AIP), an important construction grant program. One week later, the House of Representatives passed the legislation 319 to 101. President Clinton is prepared to sign the bill once it reaches his desk.

For public works, the legislation’s passage was significant in two ways. First, there was the timing of it, given the spring construction season was getting underway and no AIP funds were being distributed after the expiration of AIP’s last temporary authorization extension on September 30, 1999. Second, and just as important, was the increased funding the act provides, essential to closing the estimated $3 billion annual shortfall in capital investment in aviation needs.

To help close this funding gap, AIR-21 increases aviation investment by $10 billion over current levels, with a substantial share of the funding directed at radar modernization and airport construction projects. Authorized funding for aviation programs for the years 2001 to 2003 will total $40 billion, $33 billion of which will be guaranteed from the Aviation Trust Fund and will support capital programs. The difference will fund FAA operations and will be subject to appropriations.

An impasse over the legislation’s budgetary and funding elements resulted late last year in a collapse in conference talks conducted to reconcile differences between House and Senate versions, leaving unclear the future outcome of the negotiations. At the center of the disagreement was the budgetary treatment of the aviation trust fund, which Rep. Bud Shuster (R-PA), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was determined to change in order to ensure trust fund receipts and interest were entirely invested in aviation and airport infrastructure. Without an investment guarantee, a portion of aviation trust fund receipts were subject to being held unspent in the trust fund, as past practice had shown.

In the end, a budgetary reform was accepted by conferees in the form of a provision in the law that guarantees capital investment levels out of the trust fund. That agreement, in turn, cleared the way for the legislation’s final passage by the House and Senate.

Following are a few of the legislation’s highlights. AIR-21:

  • increases AIP funding to $3.2 billion in 2001, $3.3 billion in 2002, and $3.4 billion in 2003 for a total of $9.9 billion (current enacted AIP funding is $1.896 billion);
  • raises the cap on the Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) by $1.50, granting an airport the flexibility to proceed on its own with those improvement projects that cannot be funded through AIP;
  • increases the FAA’s facilities and equipment budget by almost 50 percent to modernize air traffic control system;
  • makes runway incursion prevention devices and wind shear detection devices eligible for AIP funding;
  • ensures that funding is available to raise safety standards at small airports;
  • increases funding for noise abatement projects;
  • streamlines environmental laws;
  • increases minimum funding for non-hub airports from $500,000 to $1.0 million per year;
  • for the first time, guarantees funds for general aviation airports;
  • doubles the small airport fund;
  • creates a new discretionary set-aside for reliever airports;
  • authorizes a contract tower cost-sharing program so that small airports can get the benefits of air traffic control services;
  • creates an incentive program to help airlines buy regional jets if they agree to use them to serve small airports;
  • creates a new funding program to help small, under-served airports market and promote their air service;
  • phases out slot restrictions to provide smaller communities better access to New York and Chicago.
AIR-21 Funding, in billions
Operations$5.893$ 6.592$ 6.886$ 7.375$20.835
AIP$1.896$ 3.200$ 3.300$ 3.400$ 9.900
Facilities and Equipment$2.045$ 2.657$ 2.914$ 2.918$ 8.552
Research, Engineering & Development$0.156$0 .237$ 0.249$ 0.255$ 0.741

For more information, contact Jim Fahey at 202-408-9541 or