AFTER YEARS of legislative grappling over how best to finance improvements in America's ground and air transportation facilities, the House Appropriations Committee has produced a good bill that may actually fly. The measure was crafted as part of a series of agreements between members who have feuded in the past over aviation policies. It appears to satisfy priorities of both the Bush administration and House Democrats. Though reaction in the Senate may be another matter, the bill combines money for popular local highway, bridge, mass transit and railroad projects sought by House Democrats with a substantial increase in the current year for the Federal Aviation Administration, a top transportation priority of the Bush administration.
Another significant part of this package would allow the drawing down at a faster rate of the $7.6 billion Airport and Airways Trust Fund, which derives most of its revenues from airline passengers rather than general taxes; the money would go to finance the FAA operating budget. The Appropriations Committee would continue to put more FAA money into the national air system over the next five years. Airports across the country would be authorized to levy a local passenger tax of up to $3 a trip to pay for local improvements, noise abatement and airport security. This kind of user-fee proposal makes sense but has not been greeted warmly by Congress in the past.
Like any compromise, these agreements fall short in certain respects. The money for ground "infrastructure" projects is beloved in the House because it would spring handsome amounts for "demonstration projects" in congressional districts instead of being allocated by state governments. But the amounts are excessive and contribute to the deficit. Similarly, an argument could be made for extra money for the FAA to proceed more quickly with air traffic improvements, but the measure already exceeds the restraints of a deficit reduction agreement between Congress and the White House.
Overall the action in the House points to needed improvements in air travel -- projects that have been locked up in the past by struggles over user fees, the trust fund and highway spending. With similar serious work in the Senate, there could be tangible results.