Legislative Thoughts

Legislative Thoughts

In their own words: Sen. McCain, Rep. Shuster talk aviation

By Rep. Bud Shuster, Chairman, House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee

March 1999

On building a system for the 21st Century ...

We are on the brink of a fundamental crisis in our aviation industry that requires significant resources beyond what Congress and the Administration have been willing to commit to date. We must invest adequately in the coming decade to ensure that our aviation system remains safe and efficient.

I have called 1999 the Year of Aviation because I believe now is the time to address the critical funding issues that plague the FAA and airports around the country. I am committed to enacting a multi-year reauthorization of all FAA programs that prepares us to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.

Signs of strain abound. FAA cites 27 of our largest airports as seriously congested, each with more than 20,000 hours of flight delays annually, costing the airlines $2.5 billion, and the American people $7 billion in lost productivity. A MITRE study estimates that a 60 percent increase in airport capacity will be needed by 2015 just to maintain delays at current levels. The General Accounting Office estimates that $17 billion will be needed just for Air Traffic Control modernization in the next five years.

Airports estimate and GAO agrees that infrastructure needs will be about $10 billion a year for at least the next five years. Airports have access to about $7 billion from all sources—Airport and Airways Trust Fund, Passenger Facility Charges, and bonds. A $3 billion annual gap exists.

On the Trust Fund debate ...

The good news is that much of the money needed could be made available without raising federal taxes. In 1998, the American people paid about $8.6 billion into the Aviation Trust Fund but only $5.9 billion was spent: $4 billion on airport infrastructure and ATC modernization and $1.9 billion on FAA salaries and expenses.

Just as Congress unlocked the Highway Trust Fund last year to spend the user taxes for their intended purpose, so too should Congress unlock the Aviation Trust Fund so the revenue flowing in can be spent to improve America's aviation system. Today there is more than $10 billion in the Trust Fund; if not unlocked, that balance will soar to over $103 billion in the next ten years under historical spending patterns. It's time to unlock the fund to keep air travel safe and efficient.

Our Committee's preferred method for protecting the Trust Fund is to take it out of the unified federal budget. That is why we have introduced H.R. 111, the "Truth In Budgeting Act," to take the Aviation Trust Fund (and two smaller transportation trust funds) off budget. This would discourage Congress from withholding Trust Fund revenues to offset spending elsewhere in the federal budget.

In last year's surface transportation reauthorization, entitled "the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century" (TEA-21), the House compromised with the Senate and accepted the establishment of "firewalls" within the budget to protect the Highway Trust Fund money (as opposed to the House-passed off-budget provision). The President's budget honored those firewalls, and, for the first time in the history of the Highway Trust Fund, there is a link between revenues and spending. I hope that we can find similar common ground.

On other critical budget issues ...

First, we must preserve the general fund contribution to FAA operations — historically about 30 percent of FAA's total budget — to cover the government's use of the system and the benefits to the public of a safe and efficient system. Efforts by both the Appropriators and the President to cut this contribution must be deterred. In FY1999, the Omnibus Appropriations Act cut the general fund contribution in half without consulting our Committee and without public deliberation. The President's budget seeks to completely eliminate the general fund contribution, making up the shortfall through a series of new user fees. I hope that you will join me in opposing these.

Secondly, we must ensure continued congressional oversight of FAA programs to ensure the money is used wisely. More money does not always mean a better system. I have enormous respect for FAA Administrator Jane Garvey and her efforts to steer many of FAA's modernization programs. But we must have a permanent, institutional process to ensure that success occurs in all program areas and under future Administrators.

I cannot conceive of a circumstance where I would support increased taxes on the aviation community. The one possible exception would be with respect to the Passenger Facility Charge, where I am willing to consider an increase if we unlock the Aviation Trust Fund and find it still cannot provide sufficient resources to make necessary airport improvements.

A recent DOT Inspector General report found that 75 percent of commercial flights on major routes now take longer than they did a decade ago. My goal is to reverse that trend.