State aviation officials say they are frustrated and disappointed that Congress has yet to pass a long-term, comprehensive reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration but are hopeful that lawmakers can come to an agreement soon.
The Senate passed its version of the FAA reauthorization bill in February, but it wasn’t until late March that the House passed its own bill. Lawmakers from both chambers will meet in the coming weeks to iron out their differences.
If history is any indication, the prospect of having a comprehensive, long-term FAA reauthorization bill may be bleak. Congress has been unable to pass a reauthorization bill since 2007, the year the most recent reauthorization bill expired. The FAA has since been operating on 18 short-term extensions, the latest set to expire May 31.
“This impasse between the House and Senate to come up with a comprehensive FAA reauthorization bill has been going on way too long. Relying on 18 extensions is no way to operate a federal agency, especially one such as the FAA that provides crucial funding for the world’s finest air transportation system,” Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission Director Victor Bird said. (Pictured)
The nearly four-year delay has already caused delays in construction projects at several airports in the state, he said.
“A lack of an FAA funding bill has forced some contractors to adjust their timelines for those projects and, in doing so, caused them to miss out on the prime construction season when the weather was good. If Congress cannot agree on a comprise bill, that same scenario could happen again. ” Bird said.
In addition, Bird said that the lack of a reauthorization bill has resulted in a piecemeal approach that has resulted in more administrative bureaucracy and paperwork, further adding to the delays.
Bird said that, on average, the state of Oklahoma receives about $24 million in federal funding for its general aviation (GA) airports through the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program. About $9 million of that amount is comprised of state apportionment and discretionary money. Under its channeling authority, the Aeronautics Commission then determines what airport projects will receive those funds.
The remaining $15 million in AIP funds goes directly to the state’s 100 federally recognized GA airports through separate $150,000 grants. Those airports have the option of “banking” those funds for up to four years in order to fund much larger projects.
Under the four-year House bill (H.R. 658), AIP funding would drop to $3 billion per year from its current level of $3.5 billion and discretionary funds would be eliminated. AIP funding would increase to more than $4 billion per year under the proposed two-year Senate bill (S. 223), which also increases the amount of discretionary funds to $520 million from $148 million.
Bird said he would prefer the higher funding amount in the Senate version; however, the longer House version may be more beneficial for Oklahoma’s airport system.
“Obviously, a four-year bill at $4 billion per year would be optimum but that scenario is highly unlikely. But at four years and $3 billion, I believe many of our airports would still be able to plan much-needed infrastructure improvements accordingly,” Bird said.
Despite the fact that both the House and Senate have finally passed their own bills for FAA reauthorization and are set to begin discussions on a compromise bill, Bird said he was not overly optimistic that a compromise would be reached anytime soon.
He said one of the major sticking points in the two bills is a labor provision which would make it more difficult for airline and railroad workers to unionize by considering those who don’t vote in union elections as voting no. Another involves eliminating or significantly reducing the Essential Air Service subsidy that several cities across the U.S. receive that enables them to have scheduled passenger service.
There are no cities in Oklahoma that are currently part of the EAS program. Enid and Ponca City were two of the state’s most recent EAS recipients, but those subsidies ended in 2006.