People regularly describe the Expedited Delivery of Airport Infrastructure Act of 2020 as “uncontroversial.” It would allow airport construction projects funded by the federal Airport Improvement Program to use incentive payments to ensure timely completion of construction jobs, a prospect that no one in Congress has bothered objecting.
The bill passed the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on a voice vote, meaning that there wasn’t any significant opposition to register. It again cleared the full House on Oct. 1 by a voice vote. The companion legislation unanimously cleared the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.
It has bipartisan support, having been introduced in the House not by the Democrats but by the ranking Republican member of the transportation committee, Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the legislation will add $0 to the federal government’s current projected $3.7 trillion budget deficit. And the White House did not indicate that President Trump will do anything other than signing it once the bill hits his desk.
So what are the odds of that happening?
All of the experts consulted by the Washington Examiner were guardedly optimistic about its passage, tempered by the fact that it’s the homestretch of a presidential election year.
“The fact that the House has passed H.R. 5912 makes it much more likely that the Senate will just take up the House bill and pass it sometime between when they return Oct. 19 and when this Congress ends on Jan. 3,” said Jeff Davis, senior fellow for the Eno Center for Transportation.
“The key issue is finding floor time or a must-pass vehicle to attach it to before the current Congress ends,” explained Marc Scribner, transportation policy analyst for the Reason Foundation.
“Hard to tell its prospects with so little time left, but we are not aware of any objections to the legislation,” said Annie Russo, senior vice president of government affairs at the Airports Council International of North America.
The change is uncontroversial because incentive payments in construction are fairly standard and can actually save money.
“Incentive payments have been proven to be effective in other areas of construction. The nature of heavy construction is that time is money. The longer that a project takes from conception to completion, the more the cost goes up,” Davis said.
Davis called the idea of incentive payments a “no-brainer.” He said that the Department of Transportation probably would have made the move years ago but haven’t because current “standards for what federal Airport Improvement Program dollars can and cannot be used for are so exacting, and are written into law, that approving the use of incentive payments for early completion … requires a change in law.”
Russo, whose group has endorsed the legislation, touted some of its likely benefits.
“Reducing the time it takes to complete airport infrastructure projects helps minimize disruptions that negatively impact airlines, passengers, and other airport tenants. Completing projects early will be particularly helpful to airports in northern tier states with short construction cycles,” she said.
That’s all well and good, Scribner said, but the legislation is uncontroversial because it is not ambitious.
“The bill is a modest improvement over the status quo. However, the main problems with federal policy with respect to airport financing is Airport Improvement Program grants are inflexible, and the purchasing power of the slightly-more-flexible passenger facility charge is declining [because of inflation],” Scribner said.
He lamented the current legislation “does nothing to address those primary issues.”
Scribner argued that the inflexibility of the Airport Improvement Program funding, demonstrated by the fact that Congress will have to weigh in to OK incentive payment, is about half of the problem. The other half is that the funding comes with strings that make it difficult for airports to raise money for many capital projects essential to their growth, including parking garages.
But any effort to cut those strings would invite fierce opposition from America’s larger airlines.
“Legacy airlines prefer the status quo because it weakens the negotiating position of airports and puts them in a position where they are more likely to accept anti-competitive terms — namely, preferential-use gate leases that are used to keep out competing low-cost carriers — in exchange for airlines financing airport improvements,” he said.
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