Aviation Refueled, Others Wait

Aviation Refueled, Others Wait

Copyright 2003, Traffic World, Inc.

Congress bypassed the roads and went straight to the air as it finished work heading into the holidays.

Congress approved the four-year, $60 billion Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization. That was good news for the aviation industry but the trucking industry will have to wait another year for action on highway legislation.

Delayed for a time by a dispute over air traffic control operations, the FAA bill included a compromise on that provision along with some $14.2 billion in grants to airports and a provision to allow pilots of cargo planes to carry guns in the cockpit.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, said the bill would help "our aviation system ... continue its return to stability. This bill will allow airports to build the vital infrastructure needed to bring greater efficiency and safety to the flying public."

During a year dominated by war in Iraq, transportation issues held a relatively low profile on Capitol Hill. But Young and other Hill transportation lawmakers vowed to keep the FAA reauthorization bill, as well as the stalled highway bill, at the forefront of debate despite more pressing issues.

The aviation industry argued that Congress must act now to send money to airports to improve capacity, a necessity if air traffic volume returns to what it was during the notorious summer of 2000.

"Passage of this legislation is a victory for aviation security and our nation''s airports," House Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., said.

But lawmakers were unable to pass a highway reauthorization bill, instead extending the existing bill to carry the country into early next year. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, one Senate committee passed a highway bill but the full Senate did not consider the measure. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee did nothing more than introduce a bill.

Another Department of Transportation-supported item that didn''t make it through was a provision to raise the foreign ownership limit of U.S. airlines from 25 percent to 49 percent. The measure was sent to Congress late, after the administration already had submitted most of the FAA bill. The Defense Department, traditionally an opponent of easing foreign ownership restrictions, said it would go along with the provision but apparently that came too late to help build support in Congress.

Ocean interests fared better as a new Maritime Security Program earlier had been approved as part of the defense spending bill. The program coordinates a fleet of sealift-ready, U.S.-flagged merchant ships that carry foreign trade and are available to support the U.S. military in times of need.

Lawmakers extended the program for another 10 years until 2015 and increased the money for shipping companies and the number of vessels that can be in a program popular among lawmakers in coastal states with shipbuilding industries.

The increase will bring the number of ships in the program to 50 from 47 and will gradually increase the money spent per ship to $3.1 million by fiscal 2012. The Maritime Administration runs the program in concert with the Defense Department.

At the end of November, the Senate approved the Federal Railroad Safety Improvement Act, which would reauthorize the Federal Railroad Administration and its rail safety programs, which have not been authorized since 1998. The House did not act on the issue, which means it will not go anywhere this year.

The four-year railroad measure would allocate $166 million for rail safety during fiscal 2004 and boost that to $200 million by fiscal 2008.

"The Federal Railroad Safety Improvement Act renews our commitment to a strong rail safety program and reflects a number of recommendations made by the administration in its new rail safety proposal," Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said. "I believe this bill goes a long way in ensuring the safety of our railways and the effectiveness of the federal rail safety program for years to come."