Sup­port­ing airspace in­fra­struc­ture Trans­porta­tion in­fra­struc­ture up­grades and tech­no­log­i­cal im­prove­ments must be part of a long-term plan

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Jim Tal­ent

When I served in the Congress, in­fra­struc­ture was one of my con­stant pri­or­i­ties. In fact, in the Sen­ate I was prob­a­bly the lead­ing Repub­li­can sup­porter of fund­ing trans­porta­tion in­fra­struc­ture of all kinds: Road, high­ways, bridges, air­ports, locks and dams. That was in part be­cause the need was un­de­ni­able. Most re­li­able es­ti­mates are that Amer­ica has tril­lions of dol­lars’ worth of needed in­fra­struc­ture im­prove­ments. But it was also be­cause of in­tan­gi­ble con­sid­er­a­tions. A great na­tion must be an op­ti­mistic na­tion, and an op­ti­mistic na­tion is con­stantly build­ing the bones and sinews of its economy — its in­fra­struc­ture — in the be­lief that the fu­ture can be bet­ter than the past if we plan for it and in­vest in it.

Fight­ing for in­fra­struc­ture was a con­stant up­hill bat­tle, be­cause the ur­gent con­stantly crowded out the im­por­tant, and the “ur­gent” was often a short-term po­lit­i­cal cri­sis over the bud­get that con­sumed all the at­ten­tion and en­ergy of the Congress.

Un­for­tu­nately, not much has changed, as ev­i­denced by what is hap­pen­ing with the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Our air trans­porta­tion sys­tem, like much of the na­tion’s in­fra­struc­ture, is badly in need of both in­vest­ment and re­form. Sys­tem re­lated de­lays caused $28 billion in di­rect costs to pas­sen­gers, air­lines and air­ports alone. FAA’s out­dated air-traf­fic sys­tem cou­pled with staffing short­ages in that di­vi­sion will con­tinue to re­sult in costly de­lays.

The chal­lenges are only go­ing to get big­ger as time goes on. To take just one ex­am­ple: There are now 1.3 million drones reg­is­tered with the FAA, up from 470,000 in 2016. What will our space look like when companies like Amazon and FedEx are ex­per­i­ment­ing with drone de­liv­ery, Uber with air tax­ies and that hu­man space flight is just around the corner? The FAA will be on­board­ing po­ten­tially mil­lions of ve­hi­cles into our airspace, with­out the proper equip­ment or reg­u­la­tions to do so safely.

Just last week, the Sen­ate con­firmed Capt. Steve Dick­son as the new chair­man of the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion. It was an out­stand­ing choice.

Capt. Dick­son has spo­ken many times about the need for a long-term plan to ad­dress our crit­i­cal airspace in­fra­struc­ture. In the past, Congress has given the FAA enough to ex­ist, but not enough to de­velop and im­ple­ment a long-term plan that will al­low the agency to move into the 21st Cen­tury. In fact, in the fund­ing bill passed ear­lier this year Congress cut the FAA bud­get by $549 million.

Some in Congress may have been

con­cerned that the FAA wouldn’t use its fund­ing wisely. Fair enough; but the an­swer is to fund the FAA suf­fi­ciently and then over­see the agency to en­sure it has a re­al­is­tic and ef­fec­tive plan for re­form.

Oth­ers in Congress are no doubt con­cerned about the fed­eral debt. Again, that’s un­der­stand­able. But the real chal­lenge in the fed­eral bud­get is the large and grow­ing gap be­tween what the govern­ment col­lects for the safety net pro­grams (So­cial Se­cu­rity, Medi­care and Med­i­caid) and what is spend­ing on those pro­grams.

Those accounts take up 60 per­cent of the to­tal bud­get. If Congress puts them on a sound fi­nan­cial foot­ing, it could well af­ford to sup­port cru­cial needs like in­fra­struc­ture. If it doesn’t, cut­ting a small agency like the FAA won’t pre­vent the govern­ment from go­ing bank­rupt down the road. And in any case, starv­ing the in­fra­struc­ture bud­get doesn’t re­ally save money, any more than a home­owner can save money by not fix­ing a hole in his roof. All that kind of par­si­mony does is post­pone deal­ing with a prob­lem that is not go­ing away, only gets worse, and will un­doubt­edly be more ex­pen­sive the longer we de­lay in deal­ing with it.

The point is that a healthy economy is a pre­req­ui­site to solv­ing the bud­get prob­lem, or for that mat­ter any of our prob­lems, and trans­porta­tion in­fra­struc­ture — in­clud­ing air trans­porta­tion — is nec­es­sary to a grow­ing economy.

Dur­ing my years in Congress there was a de­bate where se­na­tors on both sides were op­pos­ing even a mod­est in­fra­struc­ture bill. Their con­cern was the fed­eral debt. Of course, I shared that con­cern, but when it was my turn to speak, I asked the sim­ple ques­tion: How are Amer­i­cans ever go­ing to re­duce the deficit if they can’t even get to work? And how can they get to work — how can the coun­try grow — if we don’t in­vest in trans­porta­tion?

The health of our air trans­porta­tion sys­tem is at a cru­cial in­flec­tion point. The tech­nol­ogy is there to make air traf­fic con­trol ef­fi­cient and ef­fec­tive, if we take ad­van­tage of it. It’s not a short-term project, and it won’t be cheap, but it will be a lot less ex­pen­sive than let­ting the sys­tem fall fur­ther into ob­so­les­cence be­fore we fi­nally act.

With Capt. Steve Dick­son in place, the FAA now has a leader who un­der­stands the im­por­tance of tech­no­log­i­cal im­prove­ment. Congress should give him the tools to im­ple­ment the next gen­er­a­tion of air travel and safety, and it ought to be a bi­par­ti­san is­sue. Let’s for once take our eyes off the ur­gent and fo­cus on what is im­por­tant for all Amer­i­cans. Jim Tal­ent rep­re­sented Mis­souri in both the U.S. Sen­ate and U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.


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