GPS funding in flux

Funding for a critical but inexpensive enhancement to the Global Positioning

System will be decided by a conference committee following conflicting Senate

and House proposals.

The Senate wants to fully fund the Nationwide Differential Global Positioning

System (NDGPS) in 2001, but the House has provided no funding for the system.

NDGPS is a nationwide network of transmitters, which, combined with

the Coast Guard's differential GPS, will provide position accuracy within

less than a meter. It reuses equipment and property no longer needed for

the Air Force Ground Wave Emergency Network.

Despite its relatively low price of about $40 million, NDGPS has struggled

to find sponsorship in the Transportation Department and funding from Congress.

In 2000, NDGPS received $5 million, half of the president's request. The

Federal Highway Administration asked for $18.7 million for NDGPS in its

2001 budget request for highway research and development programs.

"NDGPS has the potential, with a national investment of less than $40

million, to generate economic returns in the billions," said Jules McNeff,

a director of the U.S. GPS Industry Council and a former Defense Department

GPS official. "It's a no-brainer."

The system has maintained a low profile compared with two other satellite-based

navigation systems being developed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

In the past, NDGPS has been pitted against the FAA's Wide-Area Augmentation

System (WAAS), a network of ground reference stations that correct and verify

GPS signals and broadcast them to receivers on aircraft, and the Local-Area

Augmentation System (LAAS), a similar system that provides GPS information

in and around airports. NDGPS differs from both systems in being designed

for land-based navigation, McNeff said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plans to share the use

of NDGPS with DOT for improved weather forecasting and climate monitoring.

NOAA requires that barometers and thermometers be located at a GPS site

to collect GPS and meteorological data in near real time.

The system also will be used by DOT to create more efficient railroad

operations and intelligent highway systems.

The House Appropriations Committee, which gave NDGPS no funding, gave

$75 million to WAAS, a problematic program now estimated to cost $3.7 billion.

The House gave LAAS $31 million for fiscal 2001.

The Senate passed its version of the bill on June 15. NDGPS is fully

funded at $18.7 million, but the funding comes out of the FAA instead of

the FHWA, as President Clinton had requested.

"The [Senate Appropriations] Committee has expressed concern over the

last 2 years that, while system benefits directly accrue to the National

Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and many other federal, state and

local agencies have public safety and mapping needs that will be indirectly

aided by the availability of a differential GPS system, DOT is the only

federal agency that requests appropriated funds for the development and

operation of the NDGPS system," the committee's report stated.

The committee directed in its version of the bill that DOT and the Commerce

Department develop a cost-sharing plan and deliver it to Congress by July

31. It also directed that the plan to be reflected in the two departments'

budget requests for fiscal 2002. "The committee will not support an ongoing

commitment to annual operating costs for the NDGPS system if DOT remains

the only federal entity which directly supports those operations," the report

stated.

The Senate bill funds WAAS at $73 million and LAAS at $37 million,

consistent with the revised FAA estimates.

By the end of this calendar year, 23 decommissioned Air Force Ground

Wave Emergency Network transmitting sites will have been converted to a

differential GPS system and integrated into the nationwide network. DOT

plans to establish an additional 28 sites in fiscal 2001, and the remaining

16 sites to complete the national system will be established in fiscal 2002.

There is an estimated annual operating cost of $6.9 million for operating

and maintaining the NDGPS.

The DOT agency pushing hardest for NDGPS is the Federal Railroad Administration,

which would be able to create more efficient routes and save money using

the enhanced GPS data.

However, Richard Schamberger, NDGPS program sponsor at FRA, said he

is trying to help create an awareness and understanding of the universal

benefits of the system.

NDGPS would provide every citizen with information about where they

are going and how to get there at no user charge, he said. "This is something

that's good for the country."

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