Fleet Management

New Highway Bill Scores High Marks

December 02, 2015

By David Cullen

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Photo: U.S. DOT
Photo: U.S. DOT

The reaction so far of industry stakeholder groups to the highway bill compromise rolled out by Congress on Dec 1-- and soon headed for final up-or-down votes by the House and Senate-- is mixed, but decidedly more positive than negative.  

“While we all, of course, wish there was more money to be had, this bill takes important steps to re-focus the program on important national projects and takes critical steps to improve trucking safety and efficiency,” said American Trucking Associations President and CEO Bill Graves.

“Seeing a long-term highway bill passed was one of ATA’s top priorities,” said ATA Chairman Pat Thomas, senior vice president of state government affairs for UPS. “While not perfect, this bill is a tremendous step forward for trucking in many respects and we urge the House and Senate to pass it and President Obama to sign it into law before any more short-term extensions are needed.”

In terms of policy actions, ATA said it was “notably pleased” that the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act (H.R. 22) includes steps to reform the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Carrier Safety Accountability program; eases the way for veterans returning from service to enter the trucking industry; and “opens the door for the use of hair testing for federally mandated drug tests.” The leading trucking lobby also applauded the setting aside of dedicated funds for important highway freight projects.

“By ordering an evaluation and improvement of CSA, as well as removing the flawed scores the system produces from public view in the meantime, this bill is an important victory for data and accuracy in regulatory oversight,” said ATA Executive Vice President and Chief of National Advocacy Dave Osiecki. “Similarly, by mandating that the Department of Health and Human Services set standards for hair testing, Congress has given trucking companies a powerful tool to keep habitual drug users out from behind the wheel. These are both important victories for safety.”

ATA also cheered provisions that will “enact a full study of the impacts of raising minimum insurance limits and a clamping down of a program to allow conversion of un-tolled Interstate highways to toll roads.”

On the other hand, ATA said that the final bill “missed opportunities to further improve safety and efficiency in trucking – particularly in the case of allowing younger drivers to operate in Interstate commerce.”

Graves called a provision to create a pilot program for certain veterans under the age of 21 to drive commercial across state lines “good news,” but said ATA was “disappointed that qualified, young, non-military CDL holders cannot have the same opportunity because we believe it is illogical to allow these younger drivers to operate in intrastate commerce in each of the 48 contiguous states, but not let them cross state borders. It is puzzling why Congress would dispense with language from both chambers that was very similar in many respects in favor of a provision that was so starkly different.”

ATA was also disappointment that the bill “does not address the potential patchwork of state rules unleashed by allowing California and other states to impose their own work and rest rules.” Graves said that by not clarifying Congress’ intent and the federal government’s role in governing interstate commerce in this regard, “this bill opens the door for a hodgepodge of state regulations that will harm the safety and efficiency of the trucking industry. We hope Congress will quickly revisit this issue.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association also took the good with the not so good. OOIDA said, in general, that it views the FAST Act “as a positive compromise” by the House and Senate, pointing out that the bill calls for spending $205 billion on highways during the next five years along with about $48 billion for transit projects.

“This bill, perhaps more than any that came before, reflects the input lawmakers received from constituents,” said OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer. “When professional drivers take the time to get involved in the legislative process, lawmakers will listen and respond. We thank our members for making their concerns known to their representatives in Congress.”

Much like ATA, OOIDA said it was “thankful” that the bill includes “relevant reforms to the regulatory process, improvements to the CSA program and programs for veterans entering trucking.”  

OOIDA noted that it has sought reforms especially of FMCSA’s “flawed approaches to research and has opposed the agency’s unwarranted attempts to raise minimum financial responsibility requirements. The final highway bill requires the agency to consider the safety and financial impact on the industry before enacting such a rule.”

The bill also does not include two provisions that had been strongly opposed by OOIDA. According to Spencer, one of those would have restricted a state’s ability regarding how drivers are compensated and the other would have “unfairly placed a scarlet letter on 95 percent of all motor carriers [as] safe carriers should not be penalized because of shortcomings in the agency’s rating process.”

Like ATA, the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates was pleased the final bill would not expand the number of states eligible to impose new tolls under the Interstate System Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Pilot Program (ISRRPP).

“ATFI commends the Senate for receding language from its DRIVE Act that would have made toll funds fungible and decreased public input on proposed tolling projects through the ISRRPP, the group said in a statement. “The bill language regarding tolling draws heavily from the House’s STRR Act, favored by ATFI, and requires that states demonstrate authority to enact the pilot before a slot is granted.”

However, the group said it was “unfortunate” that the FAST Act adds a three-year expiration period to the three tolling-pilot program slots, with the possibility of a one-year extension, and gives current applicants one year to complete their applications. AFTI said “this will likely open the door to additional applications in the future,” adding that ISRRPP is “an outdated pilot program that should ultimately be repealed in its entirety. ATFI will continue to oppose all efforts to toll existing Interstates under this program.”

The Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors pointed out that the FAST Act “contains $10.8 billion dollars in certain funding for freight infrastructure over the five-year term of the bill.” CAGTC noted that over the past 15 years, it has “consistently maintained that at least $2 billion per year in investment is needed for multi-modal freight infrastructure. Congress has affirmed our position with that level of funding through two new freight programs, including a competitive freight grant program.”

CAGTC also applauded the conferenced bill’s inclusion of:

  • A freight-specific competitive grant program, the Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects Program, funded at $4.5 billion over five years
  • A “freight formula program,” the National Highway Freight Program, funded t $6.3 billion over five years
  • A “much-needed” federal multimodal freight policy

“We are thrilled to see Conferees recognize so many of the Coalition’s long-standing priorities,” said CAGTC President Leslie Blakey, adding that the FAST Act “demonstrated a commitment to American manufacturing, agriculture, and retail. Investment of this magnitude will increase the efficiency and reliability of our commerce network, and we urge quick passage by Congress of this landmark legislation."

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