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Transportation R&D Down in House Appropriations

Yesterday the House Appropriations Committee approved its FY 2015 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies (THUD) appropriations bill on a 28-21 vote. According to the Committee, the bill provides $52 billion, $1.2 billion above FY 2014 and $7.8 billion below the President’s request.

According to rough AAAS estimates, the bill would provide $810 million for R&D funding at the Department of Transportation (DOT), $63 million or 7.2 percent below FY 2014 levels, and $88 million or 9.8 percent below the Administration's request. The Administration had sought an overall increase of 2.9 percent for DOT R&D, with boosts to highway and rail R&D programs somewhat offset by a reduction in aviation R&D. The Committee essentially granted a small increase above the request for aviation technology, while differing with the Administration on highway and rail (see chart).

Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The Administration had sought a 10.3 percent boost for FHWA R&D, primarily for the highway R&D program and intelligent transportation systems research, with non-R&D funding increasing even more rapidly. Congress typically does not appropriate the R&D accounts separately, but the Committee opted to keep overall spending at FY 2014 levels pending reauthorization of the surface transportation bill, presumably later this year.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The Committee essentially met the Administration's request to reduce FAA R&D spending by nearly 12 percent below FY 2014 levels, adding an additional $1 million above the request for R&D per AAAS estimates.

However, the Committee granted an additional $17 million above the base budget for the FAA's flagship technology program, the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen. The initiative seeks a long-term overhaul of the nation's air traffic system, incorporating satellite navigation and improved application of information and communications technology. The Administration had requested $835.6 million for NextGen in the base budget, plus an additional $186 million in the Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative (OGSI); in past years, the total request would often reach or surpass $1 billion, though Congress hasn't been willing to grant it. Even with the additional funding provided by the Committee, the NextGen budget would decline by $49 million or 5.4 percent below FY 2014 levels. The additional funding was provided for a variety of areas covering operations, communications, infrastructure, and alternative fuels. The Committee also matched the request for other FAA R&D programs focusing on safety, environmental issues, and airports.

Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). For FY 2015, the Administration had requested a slight decline in funding for the FRA's base R&D program, but also requested major funding for high-performance rail, effectively tripling the size of the FRA budget. That high-performance rail package included $25 million for R&D, boosting the total FRA R&D request to 62.2 percent above FY 2014 levels. The Committee matched the request for the base R&D program, but declined to provide any funding for high-performance rail.

Among the rail-specific amendments, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) offered and withdrew an amendment to restore $825 million for a program to accelerate the implementation of "positive train control" (PTC) on the nation's commuter railroads. PTC refers to the use of communication and control technology to enhance safety and avoid rail accidents. The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 requires full implementation of PTC across the nation's passenger rail system by the end of 2015, but neither the FRA nor industry believes this deadline will be met (see this report [PDF] from the FRA or this backgrounder [PDF] from the Association of American Railroads for more). The Administration had proposed the $825 million program as part of the high-performance rail package the Committee declined to fund. The Committee did request a status update on PTC implementation from the FRA, however.

Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA). Recently elevated to the Office of the Secretary of Transportation, RITA coordinates DOT R&D programs, among other functions. The Committee ended up reducing RITA funding by $2 million or 14.5 percent below FY 2014 levels, compared to the very small cut the Administration had sought.

The THUD bill now awaits consideration by the full House.