Senate approves FAA, highway funding extensions

WASHINGTON Fri Sep 16, 2011 6:17am EDT

A Delta Airlines jet takes off from Washington's Reagan National Airport in Alexandria, Virginia August 4, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

A Delta Airlines jet takes off from Washington's Reagan National Airport in Alexandria, Virginia August 4, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate approved legislation on Thursday to temporarily renew funding for airport and highway improvement projects, averting threatened shutdowns of both programs and job cuts affecting thousands of construction and other workers.

The chamber approved the bill, 92-6, that conveyed legal authority for the government to extend the Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Department programs through January and March respectively.

The stop-gap action also allows the government to continue collecting related airline ticket and auto gasoline taxes to fund the trust fund accounts that pay for infrastructure improvements and are under financial pressure.

Federal airport and highway and transit construction funding remains at current levels. The FAA spends more than $3 billion a year on airport improvements and the transportation department funnels $42 billion annually to states for road upgrades, figures show.

"This is a good day," said Barbara Boxer, Democratic chairman of the Senate Public Works Committee, which oversees the highway programs. "We showed we can work together."

Boxer helped forge a deal with Republican senators Tom Coburn and Rand Paul on their concerns over "wasteful spending" that averted a last-minute obstacle to final passage with the FAA funding authority set to expire on Friday.

Congress has struggled in recent years to craft long-term aviation and highway funding bills, requiring a string of temporary renewals to keep those programs operating.

Highway and transit funding would have expired on September 30 without an extension.

It remains unclear ahead of an election year whether the House of Representatives, which approved the extensions earlier this week, and the Senate can come together on the bigger bills before the next renewals are due.

The charged political climate in Washington is largely fuelled by partisan divisions over spending, taxes and budget deficits. The transportation bills would require several hundred billion dollars in funding over several years.

Partisan gridlock in July led to a two-week shutdown of FAA construction programs, resulting in furloughs of 4,000 agency employees and idling thousands of construction workers amid high U.S. unemployment.

The shutdown also prevented the government from collecting $400 million in airline ticket taxes.

(Reporting By John Crawley; Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro and Deborah Charles; Editing by Jackie Frank)

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