The Senate committee responsible for funding the Transportation Department approved on Thursday a plan that includes a number of provisions sought by some in the trucking industry, including a trailer-length amendment that sparked a lively debate and a couple of party-line defections before it was narrowly approved.
The Fiscal Year 2016 THUD bill (for the DOT, along with the Department of Housing and Urban Development) would provide $40 billion for federal-aid highway programs, the same as the 2015 budget—but that’s based on fuel tax receipts and contingent on a new surface transportation reauthorization, or an extension of MAP-21, being passed by July 31.
The DOT allotment is about $18 billion, slightly less than the current funding level and $3 billion short of the Obama’s administration’s request for the coming year. That includes $572 million for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
The bill in many ways mirrors the House THUD bill, passed last month, including language that would extend the suspension of the 2013 restart provisions in the hours of service regulation pending further study.
The base package also features other trucking-specific policy riders, billed as “key safety provisions,” that require FMCSA to complete its final rule on electronic logging devices (ELDs) and its proposed rule on speed limiters.
“This [ELD] rule is critical to ensure that bad actors will not be able to falsify their records and will bring better and greater accountability to the trucking industry,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), chair of the subcommittee that authored the bill, said in introducing it to the full committee.
The agency would have 60 days to publish the rule from the time the appropriation takes effect. If passed on schedule, the federal government’s fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
As for the speed limiters, Collins noted that FMCSA has delayed the rulemaking 21 times since 2011, “and it is time to get this rule completed.”
The THUD appropriation passed on a 20-10 vote, with dissent coming from Democrats who objected to the spending levels imposed by the current congressional budget agreement.
Longer trailers=improved efficiency, safety
An amendment by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) to permit 33-foot “pup” trailers on the national highway network, however, was the subject of some extensive back-and-forth discussion between the sponsor and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).
For Shelby, increasing the current 28-foot standard will save businesses and consumers $20 billion per year, reduce trucking’s fuel consumption by 200 million gallons while eliminating 6.6 million trips, and, because of fewer trucks on the road, will reduce traffic accidents by about 900 a year.
He also emphasized that the language makes no change to current weight limits.
“My amendment will result in significant lives and resources saved,” Shelby said.
And while the basic language is similar to a rider in the House version of the THUD bill, the amendment grants additional authority to the states to limit access to roads suitable for the longer vehicles and also directs the Transportation secretary to report quarterly on state exemptions, as well as to make recommendations on technologies that would further improve tractor-trailer safety.
Collins, who suggested that safety improvements and managed the negotiation, emphasized that the state exemptions do not require federal DOT permission.
“That’s nuts!” says senator
Feinstein, however, rose to “passionately” oppose the trailer amendment, and displayed an image of the deadly collision between a FedEx tractor-trailer and a school bus on Interstate 5 in Northern California last year. Other truck-crash survivors attended the hearing.
Feinstein called the roll of numerous safety and law enforcement groups, major newspaper editorials, and a few trucking interests who had come out in opposition to longer commercial vehicles.
“They don’t stay in the right lane—they’re all over the freeway. They come off the exit ramps now, and they’re only 28 feet, and they flip right over,” Feinstein said.
She cited federal data that showed more nearly 4,000 truck-related fatalities in 2013, of which 72% were occupants of other vehicles. Additionally, she suggested the amendment preempted the authority of 39 states that have lower length restrictions and it could have negative economic impacts.
“You have all these trucking [companies] … that are probably going to be put out of business so that big trucking companies can make more money,” she said. “And you want to put an eight-story building-on-wheels on the crowded freeways of America? That’s nuts!”
Feinstein proposed a “second degree amendment,” or a measure to alter the Shelby amendment, which called for DOT to undertake a rulemaking with regard to truck length only if the Office of the Secretary makes a “statistically significant finding” in its weight limit study that supports the safety of the 33-foot trailers.
“Ladies and gentlemen, public safety should be first for us, not something that comes along at the tail end,” she said. “I hope that sanity will prevail. It’s difficult to imagine that the leadership of some of these companies—several that I know—are actually proposing this.”
Makes sense, majority decides
Shelby argued that he, too, supports highway safety, and explained that his amendment requires DOT “to compile the very data it says it now lacks” to compare the safety impact of 33-foot trailers to the current 28-foot limit. He also suggested that the I-5 accident “was in no way related” to the truck configuration.
“Sen. Feinstein’s amendment is designed simply to gut my amendment by subjecting its provisions to endless delay and inaction with no actual safety benefit,” he said. “DOT simply cannot obtain the data they need … without the study my amendment requires. Studies show my amendment would improve safety by removing trucks from the roads. That’s what we’re trying to do: push safety, and also make things more efficient.”
The second degree amendment failed by virtue of a 15-15 deadlock, with Republicans Jerry Moran of Kansas and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana voting “aye” with the Democrats, while Democrat Jon Tester of Montana voted against.
The vote on the Shelby amendment passed 16-14, with Tester breaking ranks in favor and Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran of Mississippi voting with the Democrats to oppose.
“Jeez, Tester,” muttered a female senator, whose microphone was still active for the audio webcast. “How can he do that?” And another could be heard saying, “Tester killed us.”
But the trucking industry likewise is divided over the matter of 33-foot trailers.
Trucking, for and against
American Trucking Assns. (ATA) was quick to recognize the committee “for taking important steps to improve highway safety and provide environmental benefits.”
ATA cited the continued suspension and study of the restart restrictions and “modest increases” in tandem trailer length.
“We know that the FMCSA’s restart restrictions increased truck traffic during the daytime leading to an increase in accidents and we know that a modest increase in tandem trailer length will eliminate millions of truck trips annually,” said ATA President and CEO Bill Graves. “Further, we know the leading causes of truck crashes are the actions of other vehicles, so the best way eliminate crashes on our highways is to limit interactions between trucks and cars. This bill takes steps to do that, and so we thank the committee members and urge the full Senate to move this bill to President Obama for his signature.”
And in the days ahead of consideration by the committee, trucking groups on each side of the issue contacted key Senators to express their positions.
Along with ATA, the Coalition for Efficient & Responsible Trucking (CERT)—15 business and supply chain organizations—contend that the twin 28-foot trailers used by LTL carriers routinely fill all their available volume long before the 80,000 pound gross weight limit is reached. Congressional approval for twin 33-foot trailers would provide a much needed boost to productivity, according to CERT, whose letter to the Chairman Cochran includes many of the statistics cited by Shelby in the Thursday hearing.
However, CEOs from 15 truckload carriers—most among the largest in the industry—wrote to Collins and subcommittee Ranking Member Jack Reed to say that the longer trailers “would have a negative impact on highway safety, accelerate wear and tear on the nation’s highway system, and make it very difficult for small trucking companies, which are the heart of our industry, to compete.”
The Trucking Alliance, representing several truckload carriers, issued a statement in support of the ELD rulemaking but that opposes the restart suspension and the trailer length change, saying the amendments “would delay, halt, and even contradict important 2012 congressional safety initiatives in MAP-21.”
The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Assn. has long opposed bigger trucks, maintaining that increases would not only compromise highway safety and infrastructure, but also lead to significant new cost increases for small-business truckers.
The White House has said President Obama would veto the House version of the bill, both because of its budget restrictions and the trucking riders.