WASHINGTON — The Senate gave final approval Monday to a four-year reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration, failing to increase available funds for bond-financed airport construction projects but bringing about much-needed stability following five years of short-term extensions and partisan gridlock.
The Senate voted 75-20 to approve the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2011, which House and Senate conferees agreed to after House Republicans and Senate Democrats hammered out a compromise on how airport workers vote to unionize. The House approved the bill by a 248-169 margin Friday.
The bill will head to President Obama’s desk next, and he is expected to sign the first long-term FAA authorization law since the last one expired in 2007. There have been 23 short-term extensions since then, and the brief expiration of its authority last July led to a partial FAA shutdown that cost millions of dollars in lost passenger fees.
The new bill brings the promise of stability, but airport lobbyists are disappointed that it features cuts to a key airport construction program and doesn’t allow airports to collect additional passenger fees. Airports use those fees to back bonds financing capital improvements.
“This conference report restores stability for the FAA,” said Greg Principato, president of Airports Council International-North America. He went on to say, however, that Congress should have eased restrictions on the passenger facility charge, a per-passenger fee that airports can charge to back bonds. Airport advocates wanted the PFC cap, set at $4.50 since 2000, lifted.
“We are deeply disappointed that Congress chose not to move towards local financing options like the passenger facility charge,” Principato said. “Allowing local communities the flexibility to meet their safety, security and passenger needs benefits the entire aviation system.”
The final bill also includes a cut to the airport improvement program, a discretionary fund administered by the Department of Transportation to fund runway construction and other improvements at public-use airports. It funds the AIP at $3.35 billion for fiscal 2012, down from the $4 billion suggested in the Senate bill and the $3.5 billion the program has gotten each year since 2006. It was however, $350 million more than the level in the first House-approved measure.
“Congress missed an opportunity by failing to accept the AIP funding levels provided in the Senate passed bill, which would have helped improve the infrastructure that serves as the backbone of the aviation system,” Principato.
Janet Kavinoky, executive director of transportation and infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, hailed the bill as a key investment in U.S. infrastructure.
“Few pieces of legislation making their way through Congress right now can rival the positive economic impact that infrastructure investment can have on the economy,” Kavinoky said. “Investment in America’s transportation system is important to U.S. productivity and economic competitiveness in the long term, and supports much-needed job creation in the near term.”