NextGen, already mired by program delays and budget overruns, could be facing more financial and scheduling challenges ahead if a House budget proposal passes.
Calvin Scovel, the Transportation Department's inspector general (IG), said the House Appropriations Committee's proposed 2014 FAA budget, which is $756 million below the agency's current $16 billion reauthorization budget, would provide the lowest funding for FAA facilities and equipment since 2000, forcing the agency to delay segmented NextGen implementation in order to maintain the current legacy system.
In 2014, the House has a proposed budget of $11.8 billion for FAA, which is $756 million below the fiscal year 2013 enacted level, and $103.3 million below the level caused by the automatic sequester cuts that began in March.
"Our understanding, is that at those funding levels, the agency would be required to constrain its efforts greatly in regards to NextGen, and in fact, would have to devote all of its attention to and much of its funding permitted by Congress to simply sustaining the current system as exists in the NAS," said Scovel.
Sequester cuts have already forced FAA to delay the implementation of its metroplex initiative, a segment of NextGen launched in 2010 to improve air traffic flows at the nation's most congested airports in 13 major metropolitan areas.
In his testimony, Scovel said the seven-year metroplex program was recently "halted or delayed due to sequestration." The agency has completed initial design work at 9 of the 13 metroplex locations, but the implementation phase has begun only in Houston. The testimony is significant, since the appropriations committee specifically said its 2014 budget preserves funding for the NextGen programs that are under current deployment.
"The sequester and future funding unpredictability requires the FAA to make sizable budget cuts that affect our operations and our future," said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.
Outside of the funding, Scovel told the committee the program faces other roadblocks to implementation, including a lack of near-term benefits on newly implemented performance-based navigation routes and an inability to keep the implementation of air traffic control automation systems on track. Through audits of FAA, Scovel's office has found that the agency's "organizational culture" is also an impediment to NextGen.
Scovel's office will be issuing a report later this year regarding an audit of FAA's reorganization, which included the establishment of a program management office in 2011 to bridge the gap between NextGen's requirements and program implementation.
“While FAA has taken important steps to improve NextGen’s management, such as establishing a new program management office, the agency had made little progress in shifting from planning to implementation and delivering benefits to airspace users,” Scovel testified.
FAA said it is doing its best to address the problems, and despite the issues, Huerta told the committee that he believes NextGen implementation is largely on track, noting that by 2014, the full ground infrastructure for automatic dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B), deployment will be in place. But the agency will have to continue to work closely with the industry to ensure that its 2020 mandate for ADS-B equipage by airspace users is achieved.
"I've heard that some transformational NextGen programs aren't truly transformational, that the FAA will never make the tough decisions required to advance NextGen, and that nobody can really agree what NextGen is today or what it should be in 2025," said Rep. Frank Lobiondo (R-N.J.), chairman of the subcommittee on aviation.
"The NextGen program is a decade old and there are a lot of people that share the responsibility for any problems, including people within the FAA, the aviation industry, and Congress," LoBiondo said.