The Senate passed a bill Thursday extending funding measures for airport and highway improvement projects, avoiding job cuts for thousands of workers and a threatened FAA shutdown. The bill passed 92-6. The Federal Aviation Administration program will continue through January, and the Transportation Agency program, which controls the highway improvement projects, will continue through March.
The bill also allows for the government to continue collecting airline ticket and automobile gasoline taxes to fund these programs.
The House of Representatives passed the bill on Tuesday. The threat of a FAA shutdown came when Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, waged a campaign to block passage in the Senate. He objected to a clause that required states to use some of the federal highway improvement money to fund bike and walking trails, as well as other transportation enhancements. The increased emphasis on bike paths and walking trails comes after a spring and summer of record-high prices at the gas pump. In addition, concerns about the growing rate of obesity in the United States have led several states to start public health programs designed to encourage people to exercise.
Coburn objected on the grounds that the money would be better used on projects that enhanced safety, such as repairing some of the nation's 146,000 bridges that have structural issues. His concerns over the safety of bridges are certainly cogent: on August 1st, 2007, the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge collapsed during rush hour traffic, killing 13 people and injuring 145. Millions of people drive over bridges every day.
He dropped his objections after receiving reassurances from Senator Barbara Boxer, the Democratic head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, that the clause would be dropped later on. However, Senator Boxer said she wants to reform the enhancements, not lose them altogether, though she declined to elaborate on her statements.
In July, similar partisan gridlock led to a two-week shutdown of FAA construction sites, during which 4,000 agency employees were on furlough. The government lost $400 million in airline tax revenue. While travelers did not feel the effects of the previous FAA shutdown, it is likely that it would have begun to have an impact among the public had it lasted longer than two weeks. This might have had a devastating effect on the airline industry. The industry is already struggling with negative public perception due to cost-cutting measures designed to offset the rising cost of fuel and increased security screenings at airports that some say violate privacy
Congress will have to repeat this process in a few months unless long-term aviation and highway funding bills are passed. Issues such as budget deficits, spending cuts, and taxes have already become highly politicized, and the partisan divisions can only be expected to widen as the 2012 election grows closer.