WASHINGTON -- The House yesterday quickly passed a stopgap measure designed to temporarily resume airport construction grants and provide $800 million for airport projects between now and June 30.
The bill, passed on a voice vote, is controversial because it contains a provision that would allow the secretary of transportation to freeze airport fees -- a move that could put some airport bond ratings in jeopardy and frighten investors. The provision was also included in a similar version of the measure that was passed by the Senate two weeks ago.
House and Senate negotiators are expected to meet and soon to try to iron out differences in the funding formulas contained in the two short-term measures. They hope to have a final version of the bill approved by the House and Senate by next week, Senate aides said yesterday.
The short-term measures are being rushed through Congress because federal airport construction grants have been on hold since Oct. 1, the start of the current fiscal year. The House passed its version of the three-year Airport Improvement Program reauthorization last year, but the Senate version got bogged down in a controversy between airport operators and airlines over fees that ranged from landing fees to loading fees for freight shippers.
Under the freeze provision in both stopgap bills, Transportation Secretary Federico Pena would have the authority to heard off any proposed airport fee increase if he receives a complaint from an airline that the increase is unreasonable.
When the Senate passed the temporary measure two weeks ago, Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., said, "My concerns is that in imposing a freeze, the secretary be extremely cognizant of the consequences to the bond market. I would not want to see an airport's bond rating impaired as a result of the freeze."
Under the existing law, the transportation secretary can overrule a fee increase only after it has gone into effect, and only if an airline can prove the hike is unreasonable. But the provision in the stopgap measures would allow the secretary to freeze rates unless he is otherwise persuaded that the increase is reasonable.
Senate leaders hope to act on the reauthorization bill by the time the temporary measure expires on June 30 to make sure there is no break in the construction funding, an aide said.