By Jay Landers

Looking to ensure timely reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration before the end of the fiscal year, the U.S. House of Representatives easily passed its aviation reauthorization bill in mid-July. Strongly supported by ASCE, the bipartisan legislation would significantly boost federal funding for airports and streamline the delivery of airport projects. Although companion legislation has been introduced in the Senate, it has yet to emerge from committee. The slower pace of the upper chamber could jeopardize the ability of Congress to reauthorize the federal aviation program before the Sept. 30 deadline.

Adding to the AIP

On July 20, the House handily passed the Securing Growth and Robust Leadership in American Aviation Act (H.R. 3935) by a vote of 351-69. The bill would authorize $103.9 billion for FAA programs during the next five years.

Of this amount, $20 billion is allocated for the Airport Improvement Program, a critical source of grants to airports for airfield capital improvements or rehabilitation projects. For many years, the AIP has received approximately $3.35 billion annually. By comparison, $4 billion in annual funding represents an approximately 16% increase. In other funding provisions, H.R. 3935 authorizes a total of $17.3 billion for facilities and equipment, $66.7 billion for FAA operations, and approximately $1.3 billion for research and development over five years.

During deliberations on H.R. 3935 on the House floor, lawmakers considered an amendment offered by Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., to reduce the bill’s overall authorized funding level by nearly $5 billion. In part, the amendment called for changing the annual authorized funding level for the AIP to $3.8 billion, which would have resulted in $19 billion over five years for the program. However, the amendment went down to defeat.

Strong support

The overall bill enjoyed strong bipartisan support. This reflects the fact that the original version of H.R. 3935 was developed by key Republican and Democratic leaders on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

The bill was introduced on June 9 by Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., the committee chair. Co-sponsors included Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., the committee’s ranking member; Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., the chair of the Aviation Subcommittee of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; and Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., the subcommittee’s ranking member.

For its part, ASCE came out strongly in favor of H.R. 3935. “ASCE considers passage of a multiyear FAA reauthorization bill a top legislative priority for this year, and we would like to thank House leaders on both sides of the aisle for moving this critical legislation forward,” said Tom Smith, CAE, ENV SP, F.ASCE, the Society’s executive director, in a July 20 statement.

The legislation “provides much-needed certainty for the FAA, passengers, and upgrading our aviation infrastructure,” Smith said. “The nearly $700 million boost in funding for the Airport Improvement Program will help reduce the backlog in runway and other projects to keep our nation’s airports efficient, safe, and competitive.”

More on AIP funding

That said, ASCE did not see all its wishes met in H.R. 3935. For example, the Society had recommended the elimination of the existing cap on the passenger facility charge, a per-passenger fee that airports may assess to help fund certain improvements. Currently, the PFC may not exceed $4.50 per passenger. H.R. 3935 would not eliminate this cap.

Under current law, a large or medium hub airport is required to return 75% of its AIP funding if it charges a PFC of $4.50. However, H.R. 3935 would reduce this percentage to 60%, according to a memorandum summarizing congressional efforts to reauthorize the FAA that was released in June by ASCE’s Government Relations team. The practical effect of this change would be to increase AIP funding for those airports.

As for other provisions involving the AIP, Section 416 of H.R. 3935 would remove “most restrictions on the kinds of terminal development projects AIP can be used for, reducing the need for airports to segment terminal projects to comply with program requirements,” according to House Report 118-138, which was prepared by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee following its passage of the bill on July 11.

NEPA changes

Helping ensure the future safety of coastal airports is another focus of the legislation. H.R. 3935 would direct the FAA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct an “assessment on the resiliency of coastal airports in the United States,” according to the bill. Such an assessment would “examine the impact of sea-level rise and other environmental factors that pose risks to coastal airports” and “identify and evaluate current initiatives to prevent and mitigate the impacts of” those factors on coastal airports, the bill states.

“Recommendations developed based on this report will be an important step in ensuring our coastal airports can function safely and effectively amid the impacts of climate change,” says Caroline Sevier, the director of government relations for ASCE.

In an effort to help streamline the delivery of airport projects, the bill would modify existing provisions of the National Environmental Protection Act to include “common sense solutions” to address permitting delays, Sevier says. “For example, the House bill would establish a plan for coordinating public and agency participation in comments on the environmental review process within 90 days of the publication of a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement,” she notes.

H.R. 3935 also would direct the FAA administrator to “establish a schedule that ensures the environmental review process is no more than two years, urges concurrent reviews, limits page length to 150 pages, and would require that all federal permits and reviews for a project must rely on a single environment document prepared under NEPA,” Sevier says. “These are steps that ASCE has embraced.”

The bill’s changes to NEPA amount to the “first comprehensive aviation environmental streamlining provisions in the last two decades, ensuring that necessary airport projects are completed in an efficient manner, while ensuring that all Federal environmental requirements are adhered to,” according to House Report 118-138.

Delayed in the Senate

On June 13, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, introduced the FAA Reauthorization Act (S. 1939), which would authorize $107 billion over five years. Like its House counterpart, S. 1939 would authorize $20 billion for the AIP over five years. The bill, which ASCE supports, also calls for $18.2 billion for facilities and equipment, $67.5 billion for total FAA operations, and $1.8 billion for research and development.

In other similarities with the House version, S. 1939 would require an assessment of the long-term viability of coastal airports and aim to expedite project delivery. “The bill includes language that would allow the FAA to establish a pilot program with no fewer than five airport sponsors, who would be authorized to award a design-build contract for a project that uses alternative delivery and advanced construction methods,” according to ASCE’s memorandum.

Initially, the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee had been scheduled to mark up S. 1939 on June 15. However, the markup was postponed because of a disagreement regarding pilot training rules. At publication time, the markup still had not occurred.

With Congress in recess until after Labor Day, the Senate will have to act quickly upon its return in early September to pass the FAA Reauthorization Act. Otherwise, Senate and House negotiators likely will not have time to iron out differences between their respective bills in conference and enable both chambers to pass a compromise bill by the end of the fiscal year. Failure to do so likely would necessitate a temporary extension of the FAA beyond the Sept. 30 deadline.

This article is published by Civil Engineering Online.