Before adjourning, Congress completed action on a number of important transportation items even though it failed to pass a highway bill and thus, in effect, impounded more than $7 billion that has accumulated in the highway trust fund.
The most significant action gets at the heart of whether there will be technological improvements to help reduce delays for airline passengers. It also involves another trust fund, for aviation, which gets its money largely from an 8 percent tax on airline tickets.
After a year-long wrangle, Congress agreed to permit spending from the aviation fund at levels needed to ensure that the air traffic control computer system is rebuilt on schedule. Just like the highway trust fund, the money is there.
The Federal Aviation Administration is in the early stages of a 10-year, $10 billion program to upgrade its often-modified 30-year-old computers. That program is expected to play a major role in allocating airspace more efficiently and, thus, reducing delays for air travelers.
The Reagan administration had sought $1.67 billion for fiscal 1985. The House came close to that figure in its transportation appropriations bill. When it became obvious that it would not move, the House cut the number by more than half, to $750 million, in its version of the continuing resolution.
The Senate came in at $1.42 billion and the final conference figure was $1.37 billion, less than everybody wanted but more than the FAA had thought it might get. NOISE NOSTRUM . . .
Give Miami International Airport Chief Richard Judy high marks for a most successful 11th-hour lobbying effort. Despite the opposition of the House, the FAA, the major U.S. airlines and most other U.S. airport operators, Miami won what it wanted: the right to permit old four-engine jetliners to land in Miami after Jan. 1.
That's the date on which federal regulations outlaw old Boeing 707s and McDonnell Douglas DC8s because of their noise. The regulation was imposed in 1976 and all U.S. airlines have complied, primarily by buying newer, quieter airplanes.
Judy apparently decided that "cockroach corner," a famous collection of tired airplanes that inhabit one end of the Miami airport, was an economic necessity for his operation. He persuaded Florida Sens. Paula Hawkins (R) and Lawton Chiles (D) to push for legislation requiring the FAA to grant exemptions in certain cases. That proposal found its way into the continuing resolution and House opponents were unable to dislodge it.
The legislation requires noncomplying airlines to meet the noise rules by signing valid contracts to install "hush kits," which are not yet available but should be soon. There are other limitations. The exemptions would expire Dec. 31, 1985.
Judy's most successful argument was that banning those airplanes would cost Miami 6,000 jobs. Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation subcommittee on aviation and a strong opponent of the exemptions, said, "In my view, the estimate of 6,000 jobs at risk must have been a typographical error; I would estimate there were only six jobs riding on this provision, all of them Washington lobbyists." Mineta said it was nonsense to claim, as Judy had, that goods and services would not move from Miami if they didn't move on old clunkers.
Mineta's primary concern was that if exemptions were granted for Miami, other airports also would seek them. Sure enough, Bangor, Maine, got into the act before the legislation was passed. However, the measure prohibits flights by noisy planes between Bangor and Miami. REREGULATION REVISITED . . .
The most creative transportation proposal of the year died quietly when it never left the Senate.
The Senate version of the transportation and related agencies appropriations bill would have reduced the Interstate Commerce Commission from seven members to five and juggled the appointment dates in such a way that reregulators would have held the majority.
For more than a year, there had been a solid 3-1 voting block on the ICC that supports deregulation. It is expected that three members who were recently added will not significantly change that split.
The rejiggering was the brainchild of Sen. Mark Andrews (R-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on transportation. Andrews has not been enthusiastic about transportation deregulation. However, the reduction in the number of commissioners in an appropriations bill struck the authorizing Senate Commerce Committee as a territorial infringement, to put it mildly. Further, Commerce Chairman Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) is regarded as an enthusiastic deregulator. When the appropriations bill had to be merged into the continuing resolution, Packwood's view held. The commission remains at seven members.