Dispute on use of trust fund delays needed airport work, U.S. officials admit


WASHINGTON -- Federal officials acknowledged yesterday that a long-term debate over use of the government's aviation trust fund has allowed a $7.6 billion balance to build up while needed improvements, such as a new radar system at Los Angeles International Airport, have lagged behind schedule.

In the wake of Friday's USAir crash at the airport, questions have been raised about the failure to modernize antiquated radar systems there and other facilities with money from the fund, which is fed by excise taxes on airline tickets and administered by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Although the cause of Friday's crash remains under investigation, officials have noted that two radar systems used by air traffic controllers were not operating properly. A $3 million project to replace one of the systems has been delayed for several years, officials said.

The federal aviation trust fund was established 21 years ago to finance airport capital improvements. But transportation officials said that it has been allowed to accumulate a big balance because of the federal budget deficit and disagreements over how the money should be spent.

Past administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, saw the trust fund as a hedge against rising federal deficits and were reluctant to use it entirely for air safety equipment and improvements. So the fund repeatedly has been tapped to cover many FAA operating expenses that otherwise would have been financed from the general treasury.

In the late 1980s, in fact, the trust fund was used to pay more than half of FAA salaries and other costs of running the agency.

That long-running debate -- between proponents of using the fund only for capital improvements and those who favor using it to help support operations -- now seems to be resolved. But it still will be some time before the $7.6 billion balance will be worked down.

Last fall, Congress and the Bush administration agreed to a new approach as part of a five-year deficit-reduction package.

Beginning this year, the trust fund will cover the cost of about 75 percent of all FAA operations -- up from 55 percent in recent years, agency officials said. Meanwhile, capital expenditures for air safety also will be made on an accelerated schedule. The fund's balance will be reduced to $1 billion over the next four years, congressional aides said.

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