50 Years Ago Today: The First Transportation Appropriations Act

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Fifty years ago today, on October 17, 1967, the House of Representatives passed the conference report on the first Department of Transportation Appropriations Act by a vote of 368 to 22. The following day, the Senate passed the conference report by voice vote.

Creation of a new Cabinet-level Department of Transportation had been authorized by the enactment of a law in October 1966 (see our extensive DOT creation document collection here) and the new Department had a start date of April 1, 1967. The initial financial needs of the Department were met with the funding balances carried over by its various component parts, but a full budget was required for the fiscal year starting on July 1, 1967. The Appropriations Committees even gave the new Department its own appropriations subcommittee, which meant it would have its own appropriations bill all to itself.

But a stopgap continuing resolution was needed from the outset – the House Appropriations Committee didn’t even report the transportation bill (H.R. 11456, 90th Congress) until July 13, almost two weeks into the fiscal year. The House passed the bill on July 18 by a vote of 393 to 5, and the Senate passed its amended version on October 5 by a vote of 71 to 1. After a short House-Senate conference, a conference report (H. Rept. 768, 90th Congress) was filed on October 12.

The conference agreement appropriated $1.582 billion from the general fund of the Treasury for the new Department and also provided $3.771 billion in liquidating cash from the Highway Trust Fund to pay off that year’s contract authority from the Trust Fund for the Federal Highway Administration. The general fund appropriation was $137 million, or 8 percent, below the Johnson Administration’s first budget request.

How much money would that be today? It’s hard to make a Department-wide comparison, since the FY 1968 USDOT contained the Coast Guard but did not have to fund mass transit (which was still at HUD), or Amtrak (which did not yet exist), or maritime (the House actually debated a bill to create an independent maritime agency immediately after debating the USDOT appropriations conference report). But looking at a bureau and account basis for things that were in USDOT fifty years ago that are still in USDOT today, one can easily use the official inflation calculator on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website to compare how much dollars in October 1967 would be worth today, then compare them to how much Congress is considering spending on those same accounts in the pending FY 2018 budget cycle.

USDOT Appropriations: 1968 Versus 2018

(Millions of dollars)
FY 1968 FY 1968 Plus FY 2018
Appropriation Inflation* Request
OST Salaries and Expenses 7 54 112
FAA Operations 605 4,431 9,891
FAA Facilities & Equipment 54 396 2,766
FAA R E & D 27 198 150
FAA Airport Grants 70 513 3,350
FHWA Federal-aid Highways 3,771 27,619 44,973
FRA Bureau total (excl. Amtrak) 16 118 289
*Inflation calculated using the Bureau of Labor Statistics online Inflation Calculator (CPI-U), October 1967 to September 2017.

CPI is an imperfect measure of inflation, particularly for capital programs, but it is the most commonly used metric, and by that measure, Congress is spending almost two-thirds more on highways today than it did in 1968 (which was near the peak of the building of the Interstate System). And spending on air traffic control today dwarfs the spending levels of fifty years ago (the creation of the user-tax-supported Airport and Airway Trust Fund in 1970 gave a significant boost to FAA spending). Notably, Congress doubled the spending on FAA Facilities and Equipment from the Administration’s budget request.

If one goes back and reads the debate on that first USDOT spending bill, the really remarkable thing is a program that is now mostly forgotten. The 1968 act provided $142.4 million – which would be over $1 billion in today’s dollars – through the FAA for research, development, and prototype testing of a civilian supersonic jet airliner to compete with the British-French Concorde and the Soviet Tupolev TU-144. The SST program had been a top priority of President Kennedy (though his brother Bobby spoke against the SST program in Senate floor debate).

More than half of the floor debate on the entire bill (much, much more than half, in the Senate’s case) was just about the SST program. In both cases, the chambers voted down amendments to kill the SST program (the House amendment was defeated, 30 yeas to 89 nays, and the Senate amendment fell, 19 years to 54 nays). Congress would later kill the SST program after much drama late in FY 1971. It would have been the Boeing 2707.

President Johnson would sign the bill into law on October 23, on his Budget Director’s recommendation.

Full documentation on the FY 1968 USDOT appropriations act, to the extent it is available online for free and not part of a library subscription service, is here:

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