Often we begin a new year with a set of goals to achieve, or with a list of priorities that will receive our special attention in the foreseeable future.
Some people pledge to get fit; others resolve to be more fiscally responsible.
Likewise, Congress must, at the outset of a new legislative session, set an agenda and work to accomplish it. As the Senior Republican on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science andTransportation, a body that oversees America's vast transportation network, I hope to focus on several key issues that require action in the Senate this year to keep our nation moving and our commerce flowing.
First, we must reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), whose operating authority expires in March. The entire aviation industry has been hit hard by fuel prices and our weakening economy, and the continued operation of our aviation system is critical to movement of American goods and people.
The FAA projects that domestic air travel will nearly double to 1 billion passengers annually by 2015. In order to improve security and capacity and to upgrade key systems like air traffic control (ATC), Congress faces the important challenge of advancing and equipping the aviation industry to keep pace with projected increases in demand.
Modernizing the ATC system, known as the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), must be a national priority. NextGen will broadly expand air traffic capacity by transferring infrastructure from ground-based radars and navigational aids to satellite technology and will rely on aircraft on-board automation.
These upgrades will allow the FAA to monitor more flights in a more efficient and safe manner.
Such modernization efforts are vital to our air transport system's ability to meet future travel demands and eliminate gridlock in our skies and at our nation's airports.
This would be particularly beneficial to Texas and its approximately 400 airports. Our state's general aviation airport system is one of the largest in the country, accounting for 783,700 jobs and $20.6 billion in payroll and an economic impact of a $48.8 billion. NextGen and other aviation improvement efforts are critical to keeping Texas a hub of tourism and commerce well into the future.
Unfortunately, vital projects like NextGen have been hampered by Congress' failure to approve a multi-year FAA Authorization bill. Instead, over the last two years, Congress has passed a series of eight short-term extensions, creating funding instability and inconsistency in our aviation infrastructure programs. First, we must extend the current programs through the end of fiscal year 2009.
Then, we must work toward a multi-year reauthorization bill, which is key to providing our air transport system the continuity of funding and support to take on critical projects.
The second priority must be to reauthorize the Highway Bill to improve surface infrastructure.
This will bolster our economy through added construction jobs and more efficient transportation of commercial goods.
The existing Highway Bill expires in September, and its reauthorization will be difficult because we must modernize the formula for the Highway Trust Fund, which disparately apportions money to the states. Every year, many states contribute millions of dollars to other states to build their highway networks.
Texas, for example, receives only 92 cents in federal highway funding for every taxpayer dollar paid into the Trust Fund. While this is a huge improvement over the 75 cent return when I first took office, Texas is long overdue for retaining its money.
Now that we have a national highway infrastructure in place, we should concentrate on using federal highway dollars to maintain the national system. And most of the gas taxes should be left to individual states and municipalities to collect and spend without having to route the money through Washington bureaucracy. This is the approach I will urge.
I will also pursue the continuation of the policy I enacted two years ago that bans tolling of federal highways in Texas that taxpayers have already paid for, unless it builds a new lane and maintains the same number of free lanes. Some states have allowed every lane of a federal highway to be tolled, thereby prohibiting its free use.
I believe this breaks faith with people whose dollars paid for the road with the promise of free use for transporting people and goods.
In January, the Senate Commerce Committee intends to hold a nomination hearing for Raymond LaHood, a former Illinois Congressman, who has been slated to serve as the new Secretary of Transportation.
As our nation addresses a range of challenges in the coming months, I pledge to work with Mr. LaHood and my colleagues to tackle these and other transportation priorities that are critical to our nation's well-being in 2009 and beyond.
Kay Bailey Hutchison is a U.S. Senator for the state of Texas. Readers may contact her via telephone at (210) 340-2885.