Airport Improvement Program:

Analysis of Discretionary Spending for Fiscal Years 1996-98

RCED-99-160R: Published: May 18, 1999. Publicly Released: May 28, 1999.

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Pursuant to a legislative requirement, GAO provided information on the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Airport Improvement Program discretionary spending for fiscal years (FY) 1996-1998, focusing on: (1) the selection process that FAA used to establish priorities for allocating the Airport Improvement Program's discretionary grant awards; (2) the extent to which the highest priority projects were funded; (3) identifying the political party (Majority or Minority) of the congressional representative from the congressional district in which the airport is located; and (4) the amount of time required to release Airport Improvement Program grants to airports.

GAO noted that: (1) FAA has a formal process for evaluating the importance of each project relative to that of other projects competing for discretionary funds; (2) FAA headquarters establishes an Airports Capital Improvement Plan for the entire national airport system, incorporating input from airports, states, airport planning districts, and FAA regional officials; (3) the plan categorizes projects according to the size of the airport or two special project categories (noise mitigation and airport planning); (4) within each of these categories, FAA ranks projects on the basis of an analysis that takes into account the type of airport, the type of project, and other factors, such as the agency's goals for safety, security, and infrastructure preservation; (5) on the basis of appropriation levels and any laws and formulas that affect the disbursement of discretionary funds, FAA establishes a cutoff point in each category; (6) the cutoff point indicates FAA's sense of which projects have the highest priority; (7) FAA's allocation of the Airport Improvement Program's discretionary funds to high-priority projects shifted markedly after FY 1997; (8) in fiscal years 1996-1997, FAA allocated less than 40 percent of its discretionary funds to projects in the plan that were above the cutoff point; (9) in FY 1998, about 75 percent of the projects receiving discretionary funds were above the cutoff point; (10) this shift coincided with the implementation of a new rating system in 1998; (11) in all 3 years, however, FAA's records indicate that about one-fourth of the discretionary funds were provided to projects that were not included in the current-year plan at all; (12) airports located in congressional districts represented by the Majority party received 46 percent of the discretionary funds during fiscal years 1996-1998, while airports located in districts represented by the Minority party received 54 percent; (13) the Minority districts tended to have more of the largest airports, where capital investment is usually greatest; (14) airports experienced increasing delays in obtaining discretionary grants during fiscal years 1996-1998; (15) the Governmental Affairs Office, which is responsible for notifying members of Congress of impending Airport Improvement Program grants, took an average of 31 days to notify members of impending grants in FY 1996; and (16) by FY 1998, the average had increased to 47 days and was about the same for airports in both Majority and Minority districts.

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