House bill lets FAA use tax money for new IT

A House committee last month passed a reauthorization bill that would allow the Federal Aviation Administration to use money collected from taxes on passenger tickets and other sources to pay for modernization programs.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee sent to the full House for consideration the Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century, which would reauthorize the FAA for five years. AIR-21 would allow the FAA to use for aviation purposes all the money it collects from taxes on tickets, fuel and departures, all of which is deposited into the Aviation Trust Fund.

Historically, Congress has not appropriated money from the trust fund and instead used it to offset the federal budget deficit, said Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), the committee's chairman. Taking the trust fund off budget beginning in 2001 will free up more money that can pay for aviation programs such as air traffic control modernization. Under the bill, aviation spending still would be subject to a variety of controls, including the appropriations process.

Projections show that the trust fund would have a surplus of more than $90 billion in 10 years if Congress continued not to tap the fund, Shuster said.

Allowing the FAA to use the fund "lets the FAA know what its revenue will be and guarantees it five years out into the future," said Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), adding that the bill will help the FAA modernize its aging air traffic control systems. "The FAA will know revenue is available to fulfill contracts signed [by vendors] with the FAA."

AIR-21 (H.R. 1000) ensures that money in the Aviation Trust Fund is spent on aviation infrastructure improvements, said Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Aviation Subcommittee. "Even at reduced levels, it still raises the level for air traffic control modernization. It will allow our [system] to grow into the 21st century."

The committee passed AIR-21 in March but was required to cut about $18 billion before the full House, concerned with maintaining a balanced budget, would consider the bill. As part of that process, the committee pared back funding for air traffic control programs but still funded them at higher levels than the current baseline of about $2 billion a year.

In the bill's original version, the account that would fund the modernization programs received a total of $15.8 billion over five years. Under the amended bill, the account received a total of $11.5 billion over four years, with increases starting in fiscal 2001.

The FAA declined to comment about the bill.

Many aviation groups have announced support for the bill's plan to unlock aviation taxes. "We strongly support that all taxes collected from aviation users are available for aviation programs," said a spokesman for the Airline Owners and Pilots Association. General aviation airports are likely to get more money if AIR-21 passes, which is important for smaller airports, he said. "Demands on the infrastructure are increasing significantly and general aviation airports do not have the same revenue resources the larger airports do."

In another appropriations-related activity, the Senate Appropriations Committee late last month approved a bill that would fund the Transportation Department in fiscal 2000. The bill, which now goes to the Senate floor, would put $2 billion into the fund used by the FAA to modernize its air traffic control systems. The FAA's next-generation, satellite-based navigation system, called the Wide-Area Augmentation System, would receive about $108 million under this bill.

In addition, the House Appropriations Committee's Transportation Subcommittee late last month approved an appropriations bill that would fund the Transportation Department for the next fiscal year. The appropriations bill includes about $2.2 billion in the account that would fund the FAA's modernization programs. The full House Appropriations Committee is expected to vote on the bill this week.

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