Highway Bill Conferees Face Tough Funding Issues but Share Some Common Ground on Policy

April 26, 2012

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The House and Senate have chosen their conferees for negotiations on the highway bill. They have until June 30 to work out a deal or pass another extension.

The conferees' toughest challenge will be to agree on the duration and funding of the bill, but their portfolio includes numerous important policy issues, including truck safety and program reforms at the Department of Transportation.

The Senate has a bill that passed with bipartisan support. It proposes a two-year, $109 billion program funded mainly by fuel tax revenues from the Highway Trust Fund but also by a bundle of transfers and offsets from other programs.

The House comes to the table without a complete bill. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee reported out a five-year, $260 billion proposal but that measure failed to win enough support to pass.

While House leaders agreed to the $260 billion, which is more than the Highway Trust Fund will produce, conservative Republicans opposed the additional spending. Also, some Democrats opposed the bill's bid to open new oil and gas drilling.

The House's ante for joining the conference is a 90-day extension of the current program that it passed last week. That bill includes a provision that would force completion of the Keystone XL pipeline, which President Obama has threatened to veto.

Under congressional rules for conferences, since the House has not passed its five-year bill the provisions of that bill cannot formally be on the table. But officials speaking on background said that the conferees can discuss whatever they agree to discuss, which means that they could come up with a bill that has substantive policy reforms, provided they can bridge the enormous gap on duration and funding.

The reforms could include significant changes in transportation governance.

Both the Senate and House approaches would streamline the Department of Transportation by eliminating or combining programs. They also would eliminate earmarks and take steps to speed up project completion.

And they would significantly expand an important financing mechanism. Both bills propose $1 billion for the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation program, which leverages federal money by providing loans, loan guarantees and lines of credit for highway projects of national and regional significance.

Trucking safety

Of immediate interest to trucking, both bills contain safety titles that buttress ongoing regulatory initiatives at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and order additional rules.

Both bills would require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to research crashworthiness standards for tractors, which the trucking industry supports.

The industry is at odds, however, over a provision in the Senate bill that would mandate electronic onboard recorders.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association holds that the recorders are an unnecessary expense because they do not improve safety, while American Trucking Associations says they lead to better compliance with the hours of service rules.

The House bill, meanwhile, does not mandate recorders but says that the rule the FMCSA is drafting must include standards for performance and certification. These standards already are included in the rulemaking.

On another hot trucking issue, the House bill would require FMCSA to conduct a field study of the 34-hour restart provision of the hours of service rule. The current rule would remain in effect during the study, and it would be preserved if the study found the rule to be safe.

The Senate bill is silent on the hours rule itself, but it does require a study of the impact of detention time on a driver's ability to comply with the hours rule.

Both bills reinforce the agency's effort to crack down on carriers who reincarnate themselves under a different identity to avoid fines or other sanctions.

Both bills also require safety reviews of new entrants, the Senate within 12 months and the House within 18 months.

The Senate bill also requires FMCSA to establish a clearinghouse for drug and alcohol test results, a rulemaking that's already under way. And it would require a written proficiency exam for new entrants into trucking, as well as an employer notification system for driving violations.

The Senate bill also contains a "Jason's Law" provision, which would provide funding for truck parking facilities. This commemorates truck driver Jason Rivenburg, who was murdered in March, 2009, while parked at an abandoned gas station in South Carolina, a place drivers frequented because they could not find space at established rest areas.

The Negotiators

The House negotiating team has 33 members, 20 Republicans and 13 Democrats.

The Republicans are: John Mica, Fla., Don Young, Alaska, John Duncan, Tenn., Bill Shuster, Pa., Shelley Capito, W.Va., Rick Crawford, Ark., Jaime Beutler, Wash., Larry Buschon, Ind., Richard Hanna, N.Y., Steve Southerland, Fla., James Lankford, Okla., Reid Ribble, Wis., Fred Upton, Mich., Ed Whitfield, Ky., Doc Hastings, Wash., Rob Bishop, Utah, Ralph Hall, Texas, Chip Cravaack, Minn., Dave Camp, Mich., and Patrick Tiberi, Ohio.

The Democrats are: Nick Rahall, W.Va., Peter DeFazio, Ore., Jerry Costello, Ill., Jerrold Nadler, N.Y.,
Corrine Brown, Fla., Elijah Cummings, Md., Leonard Boswell, Iowa, Tim Bishop, N.Y., Henry Waxman, Calif., Ed Markey, Mass., Eddie Bernice Johnson, Texas, Earl Blumenauer, Ore., and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington, D.C.

The Senate has named eight Democrats and six Republicans to the conference committee.

The Democrats are: Max Baucus, Mont., Barbara Boxer, Calif., Jay Rockefeller, W.Va., Dick Durbin, Ill., Tim Johnson, S.D., Bill Nelson, Fla., Charles Schumer, N.Y., Bob Menendez, N.J.

The Republicans are: James Inhofe, Okla., David Vitter, La., Orin Hatch, Utah, Richard Shelby, Ala., Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas, and John Hoeven, N.D.

The conferees are scheduled to meet May 8.

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