The November election did not change the balance of power in Washington, but committee leadership in Congress is in flux and trucking lobbyists are alert for what that might mean.
Hill committee assignments are particularly important. During the next couple of years, trucking will have to track implementation of 2012's highway law and prepare for the drafting of the next version, due in 2014.
Infrastructure funding already has come up for discussion during negotiations over the "fiscal cliff," a combination of tax increases and spending cuts designed to be so unpalatable that legislators will be forced to come to terms on long-term debt reduction and tax reforms.
Transportation experts look to the several high-level infrastructure commissions that have called for more highway money, and to the 2010 Simpson-Bowles plan for solving the fiscal crisis, which recommended a 15-cent fuel tax increase. The idea is not dead on arrival, said Peter Ruane, president of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, at a Bipartisan Policy Center forum.
"Politicians should have to have the debate," he said. "The fuel tax is the most efficient, proven form of financing. The only time we've gotten any increase in funding has been as part of a grand agreement on deficit reduction. It should be considered, and it is being considered."
Trucking interests also have their hopes up.
"If something were done to address the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund, it would take a lot of pressure off the next reauthorization," says Mary Phillips, senior vice president of legislative affairs at American Trucking Associations.
A carbon tax does not appear likely, but the fuel tax should be on the table, as should the idea of a fee on oil production, she says.
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., who is replacing Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has said he's willing to look at all funding options, including a fuel tax hike, a vehicle-mile tax and public-private partnerships.
"I think people are just testing the waters right now," Phillips says.Committee assignments
Shuster's T&I Committee is the key truck-related panel in the House, with oversight over the Department of Transportation and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
First on Shuster's agenda is a water resources bill, followed by a railroad reauthorization measure.
"Then he's planning to start laying the groundwork for the next highway reauthorization," says Phillips, who applauded Shuster's appointment.
"We think he'll be a great chairman," she says. "He has said he will reach across the aisle, and I think that's the kind of person he is. Things will be more bipartisan."
Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association, says Shuster is familiar with highway issues and understands trucking concerns.
Lane Kidd, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, says Shuster is inclined to view highways as bipartisan and in need of more funding. Kidd represents a new trucking interest group on Capitol Hill, the Alliance for Driver Safety and Security.
At press time, it was not yet clear who will chair the panel's Highway Subcommittee. The former chairman, Rep. James Duncan, R-Tenn., is term-limited.
On the Democratic side, Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia will remain as ranking member of the committee. Peter DeFazio of Oregon is expected to stay on as ranking member of the Highway Subcommittee.
In the Senate, Barbara Boxer, D-Calif, a key author of last year's highway bill, will remain at the helm of the Environment and Public Works Committee. The ranking member, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., is term-limited out of that job and is to be replaced by Sen. David Vitter, R-La.
There also will be a change at the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which has jurisdiction over truck safety.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WVa., will continue as chairman, but the ranking minority member, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, is leaving the Senate and at press time, her replacement had not been announced.Trucking issues
Reauthorization of the federal highway program will be the heavy lift over the next couple of years, but in the near term, trucking lobbyists will be focused on implementation of 2012's highway law, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP 21).
The law kick-starts 29 safety-related initiatives, including mandatory electronic onboard recorders, a field study on the 34-hour restart in the hours-of-service rule, and important initiatives such as creation of the first national freight policy.
The CSA safety enforcement program will be of ongoing interest to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has held one hearing and has requested an audit by the Transportation Department's Inspector General.
Phillips will be keeping a close eye on the 34-hour restart study.
"ATA strongly supports the study and wants it to stay on track, but the administration supports the rule it put out, so I'm not sure they would naturally put it at the top of the priority list," she says. The study is due next September.
Phillips also is concerned about how DOT will implement the freight policy provision of MAP 21.
The law tells DOT to establish a 27,000-mile national freight highway network based on freight volumes and flow. Inland and maritime ports must be included.
The department then must come up with a national freight strategic plan based on the condition of the freight network. Specifically, the plan must look at bottlenecks, forecasts of freight volume, and trade corridors.
In addition, DOT must develop new ways to evaluate freight-related infrastructure projects.
There's a lot of money at stake, because the federal government will pick up a greater share of the tab for projects that meet the new freight standards.
Eligible projects include highway construction to eliminate freight bottlenecks, intelligent transportation systems, environmental improvements, highway-rail grade separation, runaway truck lanes and truck parking facilities.
Phillips wants to make sure that DOT adheres to the letter of congressional intent, first building off of the highway system and then including other modes. She foresees a risk that the plan will become more multi-modal than highway-based.Key players
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., is replacing Rep. John Mica, R.-Fla., as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Trucking observers believe he will reach across the aisle to get things done.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., will remain at the head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. She was a key author of last year's highway bill.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D.-W.Va., will continue as chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which has jurisdiction over truck safety.