- - Wednesday, March 21, 2018

You can’t have big league economy with little league infrastructure. Repairing and maintaining the nation’s roads, bridges, highways and transit systems puts Americans to work, keeps people and goods moving safely and grows the economy.

Often, many forget infrastructure is not just limited to the surface; it is also up in the air.

Last year, the United States received a D+ grade on infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers. If my son in college came home with a D+ in his calculus class, he would be in big trouble. Washington state alone needs over $190 billion in infrastructure investments, with aviation requiring $12.6 billion in investment.

Addressing these critical needs will require robust federal funding. In this way, President Trump’s phantom infrastructure plan struck out by calling for only $200 billion in federal funds. Instead, their proposal shifts the cost burden to local taxpayers, like the residents of Washington’s 2nd Congressional District. The plan prioritizes the ability of localities to raise private capital, rather than improve safety or remedy essential infrastructure needs.

A comprehensive solution must preserve the important role federal resources play in modernizing infrastructure in the sky. Aviation is vital to economies throughout the Pacific Northwest and across the country, and the federal government must continue to fund programs that support and enhance the system accordingly.

General aviation contributes more than $150 billion annually to the nation’s economic output and employs more than 1 million people. In Washington state, this includes $3.6 billion and more than 30,000 jobs. Business aviation also helps small and medium-sized businesses thrive by contributing $219 billion to the economy and creating another 1 million jobs.

This is why long-term reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is so important. Reliable federal funds and oversight ensures rural airports are not shuttered, small communities can access air service and the aviation system upholds safety standards. The House of Representatives is working on a bipartisan, long-term plan that addresses aviation infrastructure and security to keep America’s aviation economy strong.

Congress has long recognized the importance of the federal role to invest in our aviation infrastructure. That role includes administering the Airport Improvement Program (AIP) and investing in the FAA’s research and development activities. Unfortunately, airport capital needs significantly exceed available funding. The FAA estimates over the next five years, airports will need $32.5 billion for AIP-eligible airport capital projects alone. Congress has fallen short here, providing only $3.35 billion in AIP funding annually. The president’s recent budget exacerbates this by slashing $173.7 million for critical FAA programs, including a $100.9 million cut for research and development and eliminating the Essential Air Service.

While the nation’s aviation system is the safest it has ever been, we need to maintain federal investment in aviation infrastructure, not cut funds. The president’s budget rolls back efforts to enhance safety by cutting $26.5 million from the FAA’s safety oversight activities. This is why a long-term FAA reauthorization is so important.

For instance, the Federal Contract Tower program provides air traffic services at 254 airports nationwide, seven of which are in Washington state. Many of the airports served by contract towers nationwide would lose them if funding ends. For many towers in the program, the safety benefits outweigh the costs.

FAA reauthorization also supports NextGen implementation like improved surface operations as well as flight routes and procedures. These improvements allow for more efficient movement of more people, more flights and more cargo. However, the president’s budget jeopardizes this progress by cutting $69 million from the FAA’s facilities and equipment account, which funds NextGen airspace modernization projects.

As infrastructure advances, these needs will rely on new technology. In aerospace, that will include the safe and efficient integration of drones into the national airspace. The FAA estimates the use of small hobbyist drones will triple in size to more than 3.5 million and commercial drones will grow nearly tenfold to approximately 450,000 by 2021. The federal government will be a key partner with industry and states on efforts to advance drone innovation. However, Congress needs to enact and maintain safeguards to reduce the risk that a drone may one day collide with a conventional aircraft.

Any plan to address the nation’s infrastructure challenges cannot do so without focusing on building the next generation workforce. I am pleased the administration’s plan recognizes the importance of Pell grants, apprenticeships and Perkins Career and Technical Education, which make education affordable for thousands of students in my district who will one day perform these critical jobs. Congress must continue to work in a bipartisan way to invest in the nation’s young people.

The administration must remember that they can’t stay grounded when it comes to infrastructure. The reality is that the sky is the limit. I am proud of Washington state’s investment in aviation. Federal investment on the ground and in the sky is critical to fostering economic growth and putting folks to work.

Rep. Rick Larsen, Washington Democrat, is Ranking Member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation.

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