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Long-term federal highway funding now in place

Jan. 4, 2016
The Republican dominated US Congress—both House of Representatives and Senate—earned widespread praise for passing a long overdue long-term highway funding bill. Approved by both houses (359-65 in the House and 83-16 In the Senate) on December 3, the legislation was signed Into law the next day by President Obama.

The Republican dominated US Congress—both House of Representatives and Senate—earned widespread praise for passing a long overdue long-term highway funding bill. Approved by both houses (359-65 in the House and 83-16 In the Senate) on December 3, the legislation was signed Into law the next day by President Obama.

The $305 billion package, which includes several major transportation and logistics-related improvements, put an end to the short-term patches that have financed federal Infrastructure projects since 2009. It is the first long-term authorization since 2005.

The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act contains plenty of good news for trucking and other industry sectors. Notably, the American Trucking Associations (ATA) is pleased that the legislation takes steps to reform the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s CSA safety monitoring system, opens the door for the use of hair testing for federally mandated drug tests, makes it easier for veterans returning from service to enter the trucking industry, and sets aside 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,” ATA Executive Vice-President and Chief of National Advocacy Dave Osiecki said. “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.”

Other pieces of the bill ATA is pleased to see enacted are a full study of the impacts of raising minimum insurance limits and a clamping down of a program to allow conversion of untolled Interstate highways to toll roads. However, the final legislation did miss opportunities to further improve safety and efficiency in trucking--particularly in the case of allowing younger drivers to operate in Interstate commerce.

“It’s good news that Congress has created an opportunity for young veterans to transition to the trucking industry,” Bill Graves, ATA president and CEO, said of the bill’s creation of a pilot program for certain veterans under the age of 21 to drive commercial vehicles across state lines. “We are, however, 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 disappointed that the final legislation did not address the potential patchwork of state rules unleashed by allowing California and other states to impose their own work and rest rules. “By not clarifying Congress’ intent, and the federal government’s role in governing interstate commerce, this bill opens the door for a hodgepodge of state regulations that will harm the safety and efficiency of the trucking industry,” Graves said. “We hope Congress will quickly revisit this issue.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association expressed gratitude that the US Congress was able to reach an agreement on a final highway bill. In general, OOIDA views the FAST Act as a positive compromise by the US Senate and House of Representatives. The bill calls for spending $205 billion on highways during the next five years along with about $48 billion for transit projects.

Specifically, the association is thankful that the legislation includes relevant reforms to the regulatory process, improvements to the CSA program, and programs for veterans entering trucking. OOIDA has sought reforms to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and its 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 does not include two controversial provisions strongly opposed by OOIDA and its members. One provision would restrict a state’s ability regarding how drivers are compensated. “The other would have unfairly placed a scarlet letter on 95% of all motor carriers,” said Spencer. “Safe carriers should not be penalized because of shortcomings in the agency’s rating process.”

Construction groups also see positives in the FAST Act. “The release of the committee’s final bill brings us one step closer to having the kind of long-term measure that transportation officials rely on to plan and finance needed improvements to our aging highway and transit systems,” said Stephen E Sandherr, chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of America. “The slight boost to overall transportation funding included in this five-year measure will help cut traffic, improve transportation safety, and keep our economy globally competitive. Likewise, the policy reforms that we backed and were included in the measure will help reduce the amount of time and money it takes to plan, approve, and construct new transportation projects. That is why we will spend the remainder of the week making sure that this measure passes both chambers and becomes law.”

However, he added that more work is needed: “Even as we work to ensure that the first truly long-term transportation bill since 2005 becomes law, we will continue to urge Congress and the administration to find the kind of long-term and sustainable funding mechanisms that the current measure lacks. Identifying a new way to pay for highway and transit upgrades is crucial if we want to avoid the temporary extensions and patchwork funding provisions that preceded this bill. Ultimately, we want to make sure that the sequel to this bill fully funds our highway and transit program for generations to come.”    ♦