On December 4th, President Obama signed a $305 billion highway bill marking a large victory for Congress and the White House. To the casual observer, it may seem as though infrastructure legislation can finally be put in the rear view mirror for another half decade – this is not so. While the December passage of the FAST Act and the Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act were tremendous accomplishments this year, there is more important work awaiting Congress in 2016. Specifically, Congress needs to reauthorize the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration. 

Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)

Background and Mission:

PHMSA was created as part of the Norman Y. Mineta Research and Special Programs Improvement Act of 2004. The agency, which operates under the purview of the Department of Transportation, is composed of the Office of Pipeline Safety and the Office of Hazardous Materials Safety, two sometimes distinct, but interconnected spheres.


PHMSA’s primary mission is to:

•   Develop and enforce regulations for the 2.3 million-mile pipeline transportation system

•   Reduce and attempt to eliminate deaths, injuries, incidents, and environmental and property damage resulting from hazardous material shipments

•   Mitigate the negative consequences to people, the environment, and the economy after a hazardous material or pipeline failure occurs

•   Sponsor research projects and stay on top of the latest advances in technology that may lead to safety improvements

•   Oversee state excavation damage prevention programs, including providing grants to states looking to strengthen their programs and levying penalties or withholding funds from those that do not

•   Issue special permits, guidance documents, and informational brochures and videos

•   Participate in ongoing processes to standardize pipeline and hazardous material transportation requirements and incident response internationally, and facilitate efficient and safe transportation through U.S. Ports of Entry

•   Enforce compliance with safety and training standards through field inspections of shipper and carrier transportation facilities; manufacturing, packaging, repairing and reconditioning work areas; cargo vessel ports; rail freight yards; motor carrier and air cargo terminals; and chemical and explosive manufacturing plants

•   Provide updated safety hazardous material guidelines for travelers, including how to pack and transport batteries and battery-powered devices


Authorization Status:

PHMSA’s authorization expired on September 30, 2015. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation (Senate Commerce) passed the Securing America’s Future Energy: Protecting Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety (SAFE PIPES) Act on December 9, 2015, which would reauthorize PHMSA through fiscal year 2019. Jurisdiction over this bill in the U.S. House of Representatives is split between the House Committee on Energy & Commerce, and the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure.

PHMSA has not completed many of the rulemakings and other tasks assigned to the agency in its most recent (2011) authorization, leaving many in Congress wondering how much additional work should be assigned in an upcoming bill. The Senate Commerce bill struck a good balance between assigning PHMSA limited critically important work – like looking to improving damage prevention programs to reduce the likelihood and severity of excavation damage incidents – and adding accountability measures to ensure the backlog of past mandates is eliminated.


Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)

Background and Mission:

The FAA was created under the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 and was integrated into the Department of Transportation in 1967. As the primary administrative agency of aviation in America, the major responsibilities of the FAA include:

•   Regulating civil aviation to promote safety

•   Encouraging and developing civil aeronautics, including new aviation technology

•   Developing and operating a system of air traffic control and navigation for both civil and military aircraft

•   Researching and developing the National Airspace System and civil aeronautics

•   Developing and carrying out programs to control aircraft noise and other environmental effects of civil aviation

•   Regulating U.S. commercial space transportation


Authorization Status:

The FAA was due for its next long-term reauthorization on September 30th of this year. On September 29th just prior to FAA’s authority expiring, Congress passed a “clean” 6-month reauthorization, which gives them until the end of March 2016 to pass a longer-term bill inclusive of new policy provisions. Many stakeholders hope that the extra time provided by the extension will allow Congress an opportunity to take a closer look at some of the programmatic changes being proposed.


Provisions debated among stakeholders:

  Whether to privatize parts of the country’s air-traffic control systems, which would continue to be funded by user fees, and would operate under a federal charter

•   How to deal with an aging workforce, nearly one third of which are ready for retirement

•   How to address the issues surrounding pilot fatigue, with some requesting that safety standards like minimum licensing and qualification requirements for pilots, and new training and development programs

•   Whether to increase the Passenger Facility Charge – a tax applied to each segment of a flight, which is used to finance airport improvements

Congress has a lot of work ahead of them come 2016. It is our hope that ensuring continued safe transport of hazardous materials, other goods and services, and passengers will place high on the list of priorities.