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House Transportation Funding: Highway, Aviation R&D Short of Request

BILL: Transportation, Housing and Urban Development
House Committee Draft
House Status: Through Committee May 13 | Senate status: Not yet introduced

Yesterday the House Appropriations Committee voted to send the FY 2016 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill (THUD) to the House floor on a voice vote. According to current AAAS estimates, the bill would grant $858 million for U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) R&D in FY 2016, 18.2 percent below the request. The bill would still provide a 7.8 percent increase above current FY 2015 levels (see chart), though a reclassification of some R&D activities by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in FY 2016 accounts for much of this increase both in the request and in the current appropriations bill.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the committee showed more fiscal restraint than the Administration would have liked across the major USDOT R&D accounts, for surface transportation and aviation.

Surface transportation R&D funding through the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is subject to the broader debates over a new surface transportation authorization bill and the Highway Trust Fund. Earlier this year, the White House released a multiyear authorization bill with a price tag of half a trillion dollars, reflecting an update to last year's Grow America Act. This proposal is also reflected in the Administration's R&D program figures for FY 2016, which include a major requested increase for intelligent transportation systems funding. The debate over highways continues, but for now House appropriators have chosen to stick with current FY 2015 spending levels pending a resolution.

The other big source of technology funding within USDOT comes from the FAA, in particular their flagship NextGen program to modernize the nation's air traffic system with satellite navigation. The program has had issues with under-performance and over-spending, and just two weeks ago the National Research Council released a critical review of NextGen, arguing that NextGen has become far more incremental and less transformative than had originally been conceived (see report). Appropriators have scrutinized the program, and some inside and outside government are calling for FAA to become a stand-alone entity as a means to reform the system, but such criticism did not prevent appropriators from providing an 8.6 percent NextGen increase, closer to the request than not.

The bill now heads to the floor, while a Senate bill awaits, though the legislative challenges mentioned above will have direct bearing on ultimate transportation R&D. 

Cover photo credit: Flickr user Thomanication