Air Transport World

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The Airport/Airway Trust Fund needs more than merely a return of 'trust'

The near-panic over extending FAA's fiscal 1999 budget to yearend highlights why House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) wants to free the Airport/Airway Trust Fund from its constraints. It also shows why the U.S.'s 29-year-old funding mechanism doesn't work.

Aviation parties long have felt that FAA's budget-most of which comes from the user-fee-based trust fund- should not be subject to annual congressional pork-barreling, especially when expenditures, $5.6 billion last year, are way under revenues ($10 billion). The fractious community never mobilized to change things.

But in 1998, with gasoline taxes pouring in and at least a temporary federal budget surplus, Shuster convinced Congress to make the Highway/Mass Transit Trust Fund more independent. TEA-21, shorthand for the grandly named Transportation Equity Act for the 21st century, says money not spent on those modes can't be used elsewhere. And highway obligations must be linked to revenues. Since the existing balance was $ 15-20 billion, Congress also authorized a huge increase in highway spending.

The now-separated highway and transit accounts are not wholly free of meddling. TEA-21 sets up "firewalls" that are not the same as putting the funds "off budget." People use the latter phrase but fund balances still are included in the federal budget. A manager at the American Road and Transportation Builders Assn. cautions: "The proof will be in this year's budget."

A new Shuster bill, H.R. 111, will attempt something similar for the three other transportation funds: Aviation, inland waterways and harbor maintenance. Unfortunately, the aviation debate won't be freestanding but will be enveloped in the annual FAA budget slugfest. David Plavin, president of Airports Council International, says: "I don't see how you can separate the trust-fund issue. …

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