House, Senate approve federal transport bill; decisive margins reported in both chambers
Bill heads to President Obama's desk for signature
The House and Senate today approved legislation that will provide $105 billion in funding for federal surface transportation programs over the next 27 months.
The legislation now heads to President Obama's desk for signature just one day before the most recent short-term extension of highway funding was to expire. It is expected that the president will sign the legislation. Earlier reports had pegged the funding amount at approximately $101 million.
The approval margins were sizable. The Senate vote was 74-19. The House vote was 373-52.
The approvals came one day after House-Senate conferees, working against a deadline and significant odds, produced a conference reportthat both parties could live with. As recently as a few weeks ago, there was much skepticism about getting a bill passed this year, much less by the end of June. The recent momentum came after House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) put pressure on conferees to set aside partisan differences and craft a report that could pass legislative muster.
The bill keeps motor fuels taxes, the principal source of funding the nation's transport programs, unchanged at 1993 levels. It establishes a "national freight policy" that includes a national freight network, a national freight strategic plan, a biennial freight conditions report, and a mechanism for prioritizing freight programs for federal funding.
The bill increases to $75,000 from $10,000 the size of a surety bond that property brokers must set aside to pay legitimate claims by truckers of late payment or nonpayment for their services. The original Senate version had called for an increase to $100,000. Independent brokers, who warned such a large increase could drive many small to mid-size brokers out of business, had been willing to compromise at $25,000.
In a setback to shippers and truckers, the bill leaves intact the size and weight limits of rigs allowed on the nation's interstates. The maximum gross vehicle weight will remain at 80,000 pounds, the same as it has been for 30 years.
In a victory for freight interests, the bill requires the U.S. Department of Transportation to conduct a field study of pending changes to controversial "restart provisions" in the agency's rules governing the number of hours a driver can operate a rig. Under those rules, drivers working the maximum number of weekly hours must take at least two consecutive rest periods—between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.—during a "restart" period lasting 34 straight hours. Once the 34-hour cycle is over, drivers can restart the clock on their seven-day workweeks, according to the rules.
Critics say the timing of the restart period would actually require drivers to be off-duty for 46 hours, not 34. In addition, they charge, the language effectively forces more drivers and trucks on the road during morning rush hours, when they are sharing the asphalt with millions of commuters.
In an extraordinary step, the bill authorizes an $18.8 billion transfer of funds from the general treasury to the Highway Trust Fund to cover what is expected to be revenue shortfalls through September 2014. The "pre-funding" from the general treasury is intended to ensure that all eligible highway programs will be paid for ahead of time and that the trust fund will not need to look to Congress for additional funding streams later on.
In the past few years, Congress has been forced to divert about $35 billion from various general treasury accounts to the depleted highway trust fund. Among the reasons for those shortfalls are increased fuel efficiency and a decline in miles traveled as the recession dampened economic activity.More articles by Mark B. Solomon
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