Drivers

A Challenging Year Ahead on Capitol Hill

January 06, 2014

By Oliver Patton

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Trucking’s overriding challenge on Capitol Hill this year is passage of a new highway program.

The current program expires at the end of October. It launched a number of substantive reforms and policy initiatives but was funded for just two years with money taken from here and there in the federal budget.

Prospects for a traditional six-year program are not at all clear, given continuing congressional gridlock over money and spending, but congressional committees have begun work and members are discussing the policies they want to advance.

The success of the effort will turn on funding – Congress must find a sustainable way to pay for reinvestment in infrastructure – but there are significant other issues at stake, as well.

The bill will include provisions covering truck sizes and weights. Also up for debate are proposals that would suspend the 34-hour restart provision of the hours-of-service rule, and officially approve hair analysis for drug testing.

The possibilities for funding range from doing nothing on the federal level and devolving the responsibility to the states to raising the federal fuel tax.

In between are various proposals to increase tolling, launch a national infrastructure bank or, as the Obama administration has suggested, go for a one-time $50 billion infrastructure shot in return for reforming corporate taxation.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., has taken the lead on fuel taxes. He introduced a bill that would raise the tax on gas and diesel by 15 cents over three years and index the levy to inflation.

Blumenauer, a member of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, also wants to test the idea of a vehicle mile tax as a long-term alternative to the fuel tax. A number of states already have VMT tests under way.

Blumenauer’s initiative is widely supported by the transportation community, and transportation legislators agree that they need to increase investment in infrastructure, but it remains to be seen how it will fare in the legislative process.

Last October a special panel of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee concluded that the highway bill should take a comprehensive, multimodal approach to freight, with robust, sustainable funding.

But the bipartisan group could not take a position on where to find the money. The co-chair of the panel, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., explained that the funding decision is going to require a broad national consensus.

“We believe that if we’re going to achieve the kind of consensus that Congress and the administration and the country at large will need to enact revenue sources, it has to be broader than what would come out of just this panel,” he said.

In this he was echoing Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the chairman of the T&I Committee, who has warned the highway community not to be too direct about the need more money.

“We will not ignore the funding issue but I think it’s important that we need to build the case,” he told highway users.

“We need to make sure that the American people know there’s a problem.” 

He said the best way to succeed is to focus on examples of how the funding shortfall impacts peoples’ lives and livelihoods.

“Explain the problem to the American people and it will happen, I believe.”

Blumenauer’s bill, which is nothing if not direct, will be the test of Congress’s ability to lead on this issue.

House and Senate committees will work on this and other highway issues in the first half of the year, beginning with a T&I Committee hearing next week.

Shuster says his goal is to complete a draft highway bill by next spring or summer.

One trucking issue that will be on the table is sizes and weights.

The Federal Highway Administration is working on a comprehensive analysis of this complex issue.

The agency is looking at a half-dozen different size and weight configurations, gathering data on how they affect safety, infrastructure, enforcement and competition among the modes.

It will not recommend any particular changes. The aim is to produce an analysis that will help Congress make an informed decision about the limits in the upcoming bill.

The move to suspend the 34-hour restart provision of the hours-of-service rule is being led in the House by Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y., and in the Senate by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.

The bills would put carriers back under the 34-hour restart provision that was in force before July 1 while Government Accountability Office looks at the methodology the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration used to write the new provision.

GAO would have a year to complete the work. The new provision could not be re-implemented until six months after GAO submits its report to Congress, and only if the study supports the rule.

Meanwhile, FMCSA is continuing to work on a field study of the restart, as required by Congress in the 2012 highway law. That study was due last year but the agency is now aiming to finish it in the first quarter of this year.

Another pair of bills on the docket would let trucking companies use hair testing as well as urinalysis to screen drivers for illegal drugs.

The bills would tell the Department of Health and Human Services to recognize hair testing as an optional method to comply with DOT drug testing requirements.

Supporters of the legislation say the number of driver applicants who pass a pre-employment urine test but fail a subsequent hair test is alarmingly high. They say this is why some trucking companies rely on hair testing, which is more expensive than urinalysis.

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