The final delivery of a long-term highway bill is down to the last mile—but the route is still tricky and some contents could be perishable.
The road so far: The six-year, $325 billion surface transportation authorization overwhelmingly passed by the House on Thursday, along with providing federal money for roads and bridges, contains a number of trucking-related provisions. These include calls for reform of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and its CSA program; a graduated licensing path for commercial drivers under 21 years old; a dedicated freight fund to address congestion bottlenecks; standards for hair testing for truck driver drug screens; and language to ensure precedence for federal driver hours of service requirements over state labor rules.
But a number of trucking amendments failed to make it into the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act (STRR Act), including a truck weight increase and the inclusion of safe but DOT-unrated trucking companies in a carrier hiring standard that’s part of the bill.
One last stop: The House and the Senate, which approved its version in July, now have until Nov. 20 to hammer out a compromise plan, or to come up with another short-term extension of the current authorization. While many of the policy provisions are similar, the funding plans differ significantly. And neither plan covers the full duration of the respective bills.
“A long-term highway bill impacts the life of every single American,” said Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), chairman of the House Transportation committee and author of plan. “This long-term bill accomplishes something long overdue. It provides our state and local partners the certainty needed to invest in major projects that will spur economic growth.”
Leadership of the Senate committee responsible for the policy portion of that chamber’s DRIVE Act said Thursday they hope to get legislation to the President’s desk by Thanksgiving.
“Businesses, labor, states, and local communities are depending on us to pass a consensus-based, bipartisan bill which provides funding certainty that will enable them to modernize our nation’s highways, bridges, and transit systems,” said Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) in a joint statement from the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee.
Among those businesses, trucking had plenty to say about the passage of the House highway bill.
The American Trucking Assns. expressed specific concerns about tolling.
“Unfortunately, both the House and Senate bills envision a continued prominent role for new Interstate tolls despite their inefficiency and unpopularity, and we hope a final bill resolves that issue by avoiding the expansion of Interstate tolling authority and, preferably, by eliminating existing loopholes,” an ATA statement said.
That sentiment was shared by both the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates (ATFI) and NATSO, the association of truck stop operators.
The STRR Act differs from the Senate’s DRIVE Act passed in two important ways, ATFI noted: The House bill requires states to have enabling legislation before the tolling pilot can be implemented and does not allow the diversion of toll funds for purposes other than improvements to the tolled road.
“When the House and Senate come together to reconcile the differences between their transportation bills, ATFI urges the House to reject any tolling expansion components of the Senate’s DRIVE Act,” the group said.
“Tolling existing interstates is not a viable method of funding transportation projects,” added NATSO President and CEO Lisa Mullings. “Tolls are an inefficient, counter-productive means of raising revenue for the nation's highways that jeopardize the safety of the traveling public. In the interest of building a safer, more efficient infrastructure network, the tolling pilot program ultimately should be repealed in its entirety.”
The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Assn. (OOIDA) praised the CSA reforms and restrictions on any rulemaking that would raise the financial responsibility requirements. The group said it will be closely monitoring the process and “will continue fighting for small-business trucking priorities.”
“Our members want to see changes to the FMCSA as well as make sure that they are protected from overly burdensome regulations that detract from actual highway safety and hurt their bottom line,” said Todd Spencer, OOIDA’s executive vice president.
The Teamsters are “extremely concerned” with the “overly-broad and dangerous language” that would preempt state meal and rest break laws that “protect the working conditions of commercial drivers.”
“We must insist that lawmakers not eliminate meal and rest break provisions that allow truckers to receive a much-needed respite while going about the rigors of their jobs,” Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa said. “They should also remove language which would directly hinder the ability of drivers who are paid on a piece rate basis to receive the full wages they deserve for a hard day’s work.
“America needs well-rested truckers on the road. Too many families have experienced firsthand what happens when they don’t. Keeping that provision in place, combined with a new six-year transportation bill, will provide a brighter future for the traveling public.”
The Truck Safety Coalition, while touting the successful push to block truck weight increases, took issue with a number of other “dangerous safety rollbacks” and the “omission of any safety advances.”
The highway safety advocates will lobby conferees to reconsider:
- any delay on a rulemaking to increase insurance minimums
- “hiding critical safety information” in the CSA program
- A carrier hiring standard that “shields brokers and shippers from responsibility” and removes safety from the carrier selection process
- Allowing “teen truckers,” citing both research that has demonstrated truck drivers younger than 21 have higher crash rates than drivers who are older and public opposition.
The conservative policy advocacy group Heritage Action for America objected to “the nature of the supposed pay fors,” and noted the bill “only bails out the bankrupt federal Highway Trust Fund for three years” and will increase deficits since the additional funding is spread out over the next decade.
“The federal highway program is fundamentally broken, and the House’s approach would lock in the status quo for another six years,” Heritage Action said. “The House bill does little to reform the bloated, unsustainable federal highway and transit system. The bill simply kicks the can down the road, masks its irresponsible nature with gimmicky offsets, and creates bigger ‘cliffs’ for lawmakers to tackle in the future.”