Of politics and pork

Aug. 1, 2005
AFTER two years and seemingly endless extensions, both houses of Congress finally signed off on the massive $286.4 billion highway bill. Early analysis

AFTER two years and seemingly endless extensions, both houses of Congress finally signed off on the massive $286.4 billion highway bill. Early analysis suggests that this monster public spending bill could have benefited from a few more extensions.

The highway bill that President George W Bush signed into law August 10 contains 6,371 special projects. These congressional “earmarks” include funds for bus stops, parking lots, hiking paths, snowmobile and horse trails, dust control mitigation on rural roads, and museums. Among other projects, the bill allocates $223 million for a bridge linking Ketchikan, Alaska, to an offshore island with just 50 inhabitants.

For the trucking industry, the pork may be the least of the problems. Tucked inside this legislation are a number of provisions that could have a significant impact on the trucking industry. Fleets that handle hazardous materials will be particularly affected. Put simply, the industry got kicked in the seat of the pants.

One of the biggest losses for the trucking industry was something that actually was left out. Despite support from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and the trucking industry, the current hours-of-service rules were not codified in the highway bill. The only thing they got was a permanent hours-of-service exemption for commercial transporters of agricultural commodities during planting and harvesting season in each state.

Word on the street is that FMCSA has fallen back to Plan B for the overall hours-of-service regulation. A new rule is under review already at the Office of Management and Budget, and DOT enforcement personnel reportedly are undergoing training on the rule. It will be issued as a final rule to meet the September deadline. Possible changes include heavy modification or elimination of the 34-hour restart and the sleeper-berth exemption.

Moving on to hazardous materials transportation, DOT preemption provisions were weakened. This means more cities are likely to follow Washington DC in trying to reroute or block interstate hazardous materials shipments. This could create chaos and greater risk for hazardous materials shipments.

FMCSA was successful in obtaining a provision that gives it the authority to order vehicles, drivers, and carriers out of service for violating hazmat violations. The provision would apply to infractions such as improper packaging or a vehicle with incorrect or missing placards.

Federal fines for hazmat violations are being increased from $32,500 to $50,000. But the fine could go as high as $100,000 per violation in the event of serious property damage or loss of life.

The American Trucking Associations was successful in its push to revise the process under which truck drivers with hazardous materials endorsements are screened. The highway bill directs the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to develop a system for notifying carriers if drivers fail the background check. It also requires TSA to initiate a rulemaking to eliminate duplicative federal background checks.

Canadian and Mexican truck drivers handling hazardous materials now will have to go through background checks that are similar to those required for US truck drivers. It should be noted that the Teamsters claimed this as one of their big wins in the highway bill.

That's a very brief look at one of the most complex and cumbersome highway bills ever to be signed into law. Who knows how many regulatory surprises are still lurking inside the many thousands of pages that make up this legislative monster of pork and politics.

About the Author

Charles Wilson

Charles E. Wilson has spent 20 years covering the tank truck, tank container, and storage terminal industries throughout North, South, and Central America. He has been editor of Bulk Transporter since 1989. Prior to that, Wilson was managing editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter and associate editor of Trailer/Body Builders. Before joining the three publications in Houston TX, he wrote for various food industry trade publications in other parts of the country. Wilson has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and served three years in the U.S. Army.