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Aviation Bill and 2013 Budget at Odds on PFCs

With today’s release of the president’s 2013 budget, media types of all kinds will start to draft hypotheticals about what will or won’t happen.* But within the transportation portion, there’s one proposal that contains little mystery. 

And in this case, it’s the president’s own pen that will cause one of his aviation goals to wait at least four years.

Just last week, Congress addressed aviation and delivered a major piece of bipartisan legislation--and all signs point towards the president signing it in short order. The bill was far from perfect, but it did offer quite a few positive developments, the biggest of which was budgetary certainty for four more years. After 23 extensions over multiple years, certainty has a way of becoming a valuable commodity.

However, one of that bill’s major omissions--not raising the ceiling on locally-sourced user fees--is a part of the president’s 2013 budget. In response for lowering direct federal investment at large and medium hub airports, the budget proposes lifting the passenger facility charge (PFC) ceiling at those same airports.

This is a win-win proposition. The American people can save nearly $1 billion by reducing transfers to these major airports, meaning a reduction in general aviation taxes. For the larger airports, they can now raise even more revenue for local capital projects. Less cash transfers from passengers at one airport to passengers at another, more capital improvements to address our infrastructure gap: what’s not to like?

The problem is this. Who is going to make this change? The country just waited years for a new bill, and it maintained the PFC ceilings. Considering all the time it took to get this bill done, who in Congress will have the initiative to go and change this particular part of the new law?

It’s heartening to see the president formally propose this necessary change, yet it’s about equally sad to know his own pen will likely kill the proposal before it gets moving. Let’s hope there is some initiative to make the PFC amendment a reality.

* For a well-rounded collection of first-out-the-gate analyses, I recommend Ezra Klein and colleagues’ Wonkblog.