Congress Faces FAA Deadline, Eyes Taxes, Infrastructure
The House and Senate is expected to extend the Federal Aviation Administration's authorization before it expires Sept. 30, and then soon turn to such issues as tax cuts and perhaps an infrastructure investment plan.
Lawmakers were reportedly largely agreed that they would approve another simple extension of the FAA by month's end without tackling controversial proposals to spin off its air traffic control functions to a new nonprofit corporation. However, various reports said they were still discussing how long they will need to extend the agency while negotiating on a long-term reauthorization that could include policy changes.
Otherwise, Congress has already extended most government operations including those of the rest of the Department of Transportation until Dec. 8, to give members time to come up with a full-year appropriations measure for the 2018 fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.
As earlier reported, that extension of fiscal 2017 funding levels into December also delays state DOTs from receiving roughly $1 billion in additional funds for fiscal 2018 that were already authorized and paid for in 2015 through the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act.
The Senate still has yet to confirm three senior USDOT nominees, who have reportedly been blocked for floor consideration by senators from New York and New Jersey until those lawmakers get the funding assurances they seek from the Trump administration to help build the big-ticket Hudson River rail tunnel project.
However, President Trump recently met with most of those senators, plus other officials from those two states, to discuss the Hudson tunnels project and consider their funding request. So that could lead to some resolution of the issues.
While administration officials have said they look for legislation on an infrastructure plan to follow tax reform, the president's recent talks have generated more attention for project investment and shown that it remains an issue for him.
Others in the capital are also trying to stir momentum on infrastructure investment as the calendar turns to autumn.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee that writes the highway portion of surface transportation legislation, said in a Sept. 14 op-ed in the Washington Times that it is "time to get to work on infrastructure."
Barrasso wrote that "I am committed to passing infrastructure legislation that will improve lives, protect families and strengthen the economy," adding that the EPW committee has held seven hearings this year related to improving highways, bridges and other facilities.
He also said while private financing – which the Trump administration says it expects to pick up more of the cost of projects – can help pay for projects in some areas such as heavily populated cities, "private investment is typically less effective in rural communities. Big-ticket projects are less common in rural areas like my home state of Wyoming."
Barrasso continued: "Less populous places may need to rely more on public financing. We've used these models in the past, and they're a good way to get the most bang for the taxpayer's buck if we use them responsibly."
And the senator said formula-based funding programs, which are a staple of the Highway Trust Fund's approach to the federal-state partnership on projects, ensure that rural areas "get a fair piece of the pie" and "help projects get done more quickly, without expensive delays."
As those and other issues continue to swirl in Washington, state DOT executives are convening in Phoenix Sept. 25-28 for the annual meeting of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
They will discuss a number of policy issues and industry developments in various committee meetings, and USDOT Secretary Elaine Chao will address the entire group. The state agency CEOs will also hear from James Ray, a senior adviser to Chao, on how the administration wants to use incentives to leverage federal investment dollars to help draw more nonfederal funds to projects.