Safety runs through DOT budget

The Bush administration is asking Congress for $54.3 billion for the Transportation Department for fiscal 2004 — a 6 percent increase over last year's request — with $2.65 billion for the department's information technology investment portfolio — a slight decrease.

"We're very satisfied with the support we've gotten," said Kim Taylor, Transportation's chief information officer. "Especially when you consider the current budget [climate]. It's enough to get the job done."

A major chunk of the money earmarked for IT goes to national airspace modernization. Projects that received funding include new equipment for air traffic controllers that will enable planes to fly more direct routes and to have an easier time landing in bad weather. DOT also received more money for its cybersecurity program at the department level, Taylor said.

Those initiatives underscore the emphasis on safety throughout Transportation's budget.

"During the past year, we at DOT have been hard at work creating a safer, simpler and smarter national transportation system for all Americans," Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said at a news briefing Feb. 3. "Safer, because we are placing a greater emphasis on saving lives and reducing accidents; simpler, because we want to consolidate and streamline programs and improve project delivery; and smarter, because we are improving system performance and enhancing program accountability."

A large part of that effort has focused on the start of the Transportation Security Administration. President Bush signed legislation creating TSA in November 2001. The fledgling agency, along with the Coast Guard, is moving to the new Homeland Security Department. Facilitating that transition represents a major task for DOT in the coming months, according to the proposal.

"We're going to be working very closely with TSA," Taylor said. "There are a lot of relationships that will remain." While losing some of its workforce to the Homeland Security Department, DOT — a 59,000-person operation — still has plans to beef up.

The budget request includes $14 million for 328 additional controllers and safety inspectors at the Federal Aviation Administration. That number, however, is significantly less than the 850 controllers agency officials had said they hoped to hire.

The FAA employs about 15,000 controllers, who rely on various systems to manage traffic and provide information to pilots in the air and on the ground. Many of those controllers are, or soon will be, eligible for retirement. The list of potential departees includes frontline supervisors and controllers at some of the nation's busiest air traffic control facilities.

The workforce shortage isn't the only crisis that President Bush addressed in his proposal for the department. Amtrak, which nearly shut down last year, comes away with $900 million to support programs that, administration officials believe, will increase its future viability.

A construction project that is beset by cost overruns and lax oversight — the overhaul of the Springfield interchange in northern Virginia — represents another problem area. To prevent similar situations, the administration wants to strengthen financial and project management at the Federal Highway Administration.

Despite those challenges, Transportation showed substantial, sustained progress on the President's Management Agenda, a five-point strategy for making government more effective. DOT milestones include launching a major competition study for a portion of the FAA's workforce — a potentially controversial move — and deploying a compliant financial management system.

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