July 30, 2015

Senate passes six-year transport funding plan with new freight, multimodal initiatives

Bill tables release of CSA trucker-safety scores for nearly two years pending analysis of program; Senate also approves three-month extension of current law.

By DC Velocity Staff

The Senate passed legislation today reauthorizing federal highway and mass-transit programs for the next six years at a cost of about $255 billion. The bill, approved by a 65-34 margin, creates a national freight program and multimodal policy, with $15 billion to fund the initiatives.

The legislation also requires that motor carrier safety scores developed under the Department of Transportation's Compliance, Safety, and Accountability (CSA) program be withdrawn from public view for nearly two years. The Transportation Research Board, a leading academic research group, would have 18 months from the bill's enactment to conduct a study of the CSA program, and the Secretary of Transportation would have up to four additional months to implement the research board's recommendations.

Trucking interests said the scores should be withdrawn because they are built on faulty methodology and incomplete data. Safety advocates have argued that hiding carrier safety scores from the public enables unsafe carriers to conceal operational problems and puts the traveling public at risk.

The bill contained no language repealing a 33-year ban on twin trailers each longer than 28 feet operating on the national highway network. Shipper, carrier, and business interests have lobbied to extend trailer lengths to 33 feet each. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees have included such language in their respective versions of DOT's fiscal-year 2016 appropriations legislation.

At the same time, the Senate voted overwhelmingly for a three-month extension of the current transport reauthorization law, following the House's vote yesterday for a similar extension. Congress thus averts a July 31 shutdown of federal funding for transport projects, which would have occurred without a short-term "patch." House and Senate conferees will convene after the summer legislative recess to hash out a compromise bill that could be voted on by both chambers and sent to President Obama's desk by the end of October.

The Senate bill, called the "Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy" (DRIVE) Act, was negotiated by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. It also had significant input from Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, whose own reauthorization bill was incorporated into the DRIVE Act; Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee; and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who has been arguably the leading Congressional proponent of a multimodal freight policy.

The multimodal freight policy, which would be overseen by the DOT's undersecretary of policy, calls for the creation, within one year of the bill's enactment, of a national freight network connecting port, highway, and rail nodes. The network would be populated with multimodal facilities and corridors considered vital to the nation's goods-moving system.

Within three years of enactment, the DOT secretary would be required to complete a national freight strategic plan assessing the performance of the projects selected to be in the network, and identifying shortcomings and bottlenecks in the system. The strategic plan would be reviewed every five years.

The bill calls for an $11.65-billion apportionment to freight projects over six years, with a 10-percent maximum allocation for multimodal initiatives; the bulk of the freight funding would go to highway-only projects. In addition, the bill funds multimodal under a program dubbed "Assistance for Major Projects." Under the program, multimodal would receive a maximum of 20 percent of $2.1 billion in funding over six years. Funding for both programs would come from the Highway Trust Fund, the mechanism that is used to pay for transportation projects. The Trust Fund is supported by federal excise taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel.

A third initiative, which was included in the Senate bill from legislation introduced in late June by Sens. Cantwell; Cory Booker (D-N.J.); Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), establishes a multimodal competitive grant program with $1.2 billion in funding over six years. Those proceeds would be appropriated from the general treasury.

As expected, industry reaction was varied. The American Trucking Associations (ATA), which represents mostly large truck fleets, applauded the legislation. The Coalition for America's Gateways and Trade Corridors, a group of more than 60 public- and private-sector organizations lobbying for more investment in intermodal infrastructure, hailed the bill as an advancement of freight policy and a realization that freight does not just move on the highways. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), which represents more than 150,000 small-business truckers and independent contractors, said the Senate missed the opportunity to require a comprehensive review of truck safety regulation and a significant overhaul of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), a DOT subagency that oversees truck and motor-coach safety. OOIDA said it supported the proposed reform of the CSA process.

The harshest rebuke came from highway safety advocates, who said the bill does nothing to improve road safety, and panders to truck and construction interests at the expense of motorists and their families.

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