The committee approved a bill that gives the Department of Transportation an increase over last fiscal year, but slightly less than DOT requested. The budgeting process is not finished, but in this latest development DOT’s safety program lost funds for data collection and research programs.
On another matter, the committee turned back a move to tighten restrictions on Mexican truck and bus companies scheduled to start operating in the U.S. early next year.
Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minn., offered an amendment that would require U.S. safety officials to inspect Mexico companies before they begin long-distance operations in the U.S.
Voting along party lines, the committee supported an option that reflects the Bush administration’s more lenient position. As already proposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Mexican companies will have to show that they have adequate safety systems in place before they can get authority to operate, and would be subject to an inspection with 18 months.
The committee, hampered by restrictions under current highway laws, said it will fund the agency’s increased border safety effort through the Federal Highway Administration’s budget. The approximately $14 million will cover 80 new border inspectors and 23 trailers to house them, five bilingual lawyers and the safety audits.
Other line items in the safety agency’s proposed budget were cut. The committee decided not to add new money for the agency’s crash data collection effort, and it eliminated funding for motor carrier research. It directed the agency to fund the research program through any savings it can make in administration.
Also cut were funds for improvements in the agency’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics – “due to budget constraints and an absence of justification” according to the committee’s report.
The agency’s requested increase for its commercial drivers’ license program was cut as well, from $10 million to just over $7 million. The committee did urge the agency to find additional funds in the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program to support the program.
Observers point out that since the budget still must clear the House and be reconciled with the Senate, supporters of the safety agency’s budget still have time to maneuver.
Overall, the committee approved $32.7 billion for highway spending, a 4% over the fiscal year 2001. It devoted considerable attention to DOT’s biggest headache, airline delays, by funding several Federal Aviation Administration programs.