Congress features trucking issues in highway bill hearing

He came to drum up support for the administration’s half-trillion dollar plan to modernize the nation’s transportation system, but Transportation Sec. Anthony Foxx stayed for three hours of questions from the House committee charged with writing the next highway bill. Many of those questions Wednesday focused on issues critical to the trucking industry: hours of service, CSA, truck size and weight, driver training, cross-border trucking with Mexico and the medical examiner registry.

And all of those topics are expected to be revisited, with corresponding legislation likely to be included in the next federal surface transportation authorization, trucking representatives on Capitol Hill say.

Foxx (below at right) was the sole witness to testify as the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee held its initial hearing on the highway bill. Congress has until May to replace MAP-21, the current program, or federal funding for roads and transit will be suspended – unless, of course, lawmakers extend current spending levels.

And while the political path of least resistance has been the road the most taken in reauthorization struggles over the last decade, support for a multi-year, sustainable funding fix is mounting in Washington. Paying for such a plan, however, remains the “skunk” in the works, as Rep. Don Young (R-AK) indelicately characterized the problem.

“We’re all like a bunch of dogs circling around a skunk. That skunk is how we’re going to fund this program,” Young said.

He called on the White House and congressional leadership to convince Americans of the need for infrastructure investment – and he cited trucking’s support of a diesel tax increase as a sign of the public’s willingness to pay their share.

The transportation committee, however, has little say over funding. But Foxx did detail the “new and improved” Grow America Act, the Obama administration’s six-year, $478 billion proposal to be funded with corporate tax reform targeting profits booked overseas.

That scheme, however, has been dismissed by some Republicans. Even the top-ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), called it “a non-starter.”

“We’re not going to see repatriation out of this Congress,” DeFazio said. “The Republicans don’t support it.”

DeFazio noted that if the gas tax, unchanged since 1993, had been indexed to inflation, the Highway Trust Fund would not be facing annual shortfalls. As an alternative, DeFazio has called for taxing oil by barrel.

Trucking issues
And in his discussion with Foxx, DeFazio was the first to challenge a trucking-specific aspect of DOT policy when he questioned the safety implications of giving Mexico-based carriers full cross-border authority.

Foxx said he would respond to DeFazio’s specific questions in writing.

Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY) immediately asked Foxx about the restart provisions of trucking’s hours of service (HOS) rule. Hanna finds it “surprising” that the same researchers whose evidence provided a basis for changing HOS in 2013 would be asked by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to lead the new study Congress called for when it suspended the restart change in December.

He also suggested that a survey sample of 250 drivers is not an adequate representation of the than 2 million drivers on the road.

“They are up in arms over this because they think it’s counter-productive in terms of safety, and also it would require more trucks and more drivers on the roads,” Hanna said. “It’s very prescriptive to tell a person, basically, when they’re tired.”

Foxx responded that DOT’s focus is on safety, not on “inhibiting people’s rights to make a living,” and he defended the fatigue science behind HOS.
“We don’t make it a practice of issuing a rule without completed studies,” Foxx said.

Hanna countered that FMCSA’s action “doesn’t prove that they are interested in the science, it proves they are on a mission to have this rule implemented,” and he called the restart provisions “arbitrary and capricious.”

Regarding Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA), Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA) noted a GAO report that questioned the program’s “effectiveness” in improving highway safety, and that CSA uses data that has “no causal connection” to crashes. And he suggested that any publicly available carrier safety scores should have such a causal relation.

Foxx called the GAO methodology “flawed,” and said its recommendations were contrary to FMCSA’s safety goals.

Barletta and a number of other lawmakers asked Foxx about the status of a congressionally mandated study on the impact of heavier trucks on the highways and on safety. Foxx said that the study is ongoing, that it will be peer reviewed and made available to the public for comment.
“It’s a report I know people are anxiously awaiting, but we’re trying to make sure we get it right,” Foxx said.

Similarly, Foxx said he expects for FMCSA to have a driver training standard ready by the end of the year through a negotiated rulemaking, and he called the development of the often-delayed standards “a long and tortured issue with a lot of false starts in the past.”

Members also noted problems constituents had with getting DOT physicals, and wondered why the medical examiner registration program would eliminate options such as a visit to the family doctor to get a driver’s medical card.

Foxx again said he would look into the matter, and added that such issues illustrated the complexity of the reauthorization.

“You all are going to have a massive task in front of you, in writing a highway bill,” Foxx said. 

A preview of how trucking interests will approach these potential provisions may be read here.

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