November 5, 2015

House decisively passes highway bill; freight interests seem well represented

House decisively passes highway bill; freight interests seem well represented

Six-year, $325 billion measure heads to conference committee to reconcile with Senate version.

By Mark B. Solomon

The House of Representatives today overwhelmingly approved a six-year, $325 billion bill to fund the national surface-transportation network, legislation that authorizes billions of dollars for dedicated freight projects, establishes and expands programs to promote goods movement, and creates a pilot program to allow individuals under the age of 21 to operate a commercial motor vehicle in interstate commerce.

The bill, which passed by a 363 to 64 margin, now goes to House-Senate conferees, who will reconcile the House version with the Senate measure, which was approved in July. The conference report goes to the full House and Senate for votes, after which time a final version will be sent to President Obama's desk for signature. The most recent extension of the current funding law expires on Nov. 20, and there is expected to be a furious push on Capitol Hill to get a bill to the president's desk before then. The new Speaker of the House, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), has made the bill's passage a priority in an effort to show the American people that Congress can collaborate on major public-policy initiatives.

The House bill creates a $4.5 billion grants program over six years for what are considered "nationally significant" freight and highway projects. The bill expands the so-called National Highway Freight Network to encompass highway connections to ports and intermodal facilities, and establishes a "national freight strategic plan" to govern goods movement.

The bill requires the Department of Transportation to convene a task force to sketch a blueprint for a program that will allow a "novice licensed driver" between the ages of 19 years and six months and 21 to drive a truck in a limited capacity between adjacent states that enter into a special bistate agreement. The task force would have one year from the day the bill becomes law to present DOT with recommendations; the agency would have one year after that to establish what the bill termed a "graduated" pilot program. Currently, commercial drivers under the age of 21 cannot operate across state lines, though they can drive within the boundaries of their states of residence.

Shipper, freight broker, and owner-operator driver interests scored a victory: They were assured by key lawmakers that language expanding the pool of motor carriers that could meet the guidelines for a new federal hiring standard for trucking firms would be included in the final version of a House-Senate conference report. The language, proposed by Rep. John Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.), would deem a motor carrier fit to operate even if it did not have a safety rating from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), a subagency of the Department of Transportation that oversees the nation's trucks and buses, as long as the carrier had not willfully violated the law.

The original language would have qualified a carrier as long as it had a satisfactory safety fitness determination from FMCSA. However, industry groups said that because the agency lacks the resources to conduct full safety reviews of most of the nation's 530,000 registered motor carriers and owner-operators, the bill threatened to exclude many thousands of operators that remain unrated yet operate in a satisfactory manner. Duncan withdrew his amendment after receiving pledges from Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the committee's ranking member, that the language Duncan sponsored would survive the conference process.

Chris Burroughs, senior government affairs manager for the Transportation Intermediaries Association (TIA), which represents brokers and 3PLs and has led the industry push for a national hiring standard, said it will be a tough fight to get the language through the Senate when it votes on the conference report. The Senate did not include any hiring-standard provisions in its measure.

The House bill directs FMCSA to commission a three-year study by the Transportation Research Board of the FMCSA's controversial Compliance, Safety, and Accountability (CSA) program, which grades carriers based on a series of metrics and then assigns them performance scores under what is known as the Safety Measurement System, or SMS. The bill requires FMCSA to remove all SMS data from public viewing until the Research Board publishes its report and recommendations from a corrective action plan have been implemented.

The language in the House bill somewhat resembles wording in the Senate's version, with the key difference being that the Senate bill allows raw data to remain in public view while removing the scores and carrier analysis.

House lawmakers rejected proposals to reduce motor-fuels taxes, dealing a setback to those who believe that transport funding should devolve to the states through their own taxes and user fees, and that the federal government's involvement should be dramatically scaled back or eliminated. Excise taxes on gasoline and diesel-fuel consumption are the principal sources of road and transit funding for federal projects.

The bill raises $9 billion in revenue by selling oil from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, an emergency stockpile to be drawn down in the event of a national emergency that curtails or halts the flow of oil. As of early August, the Reserve held 695.1 million barrels of oil, just short of its 713.5-million-barrel capacity, according to data from the Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The bill granted the nation's railroads a three-year extension from the current Dec. 31, 2015, deadline to install positive train control (PTC), a series of advanced technologies designed to automatically stop or slow a train before accidents occur, eliminating the human-error cause of railroad accidents. The railroad industry has argued that the complex systems will cost billions of dollars to develop and install and cannot be fully implemented by year's end without shutting down large portions of their networks, thus potentially crippling the flow of U.S. commerce. The industry had recommended the three-year extension.

The House, like the Senate, voted to allow trucking companies to use hair follicles rather than urinalysis for employee substance-abuse testing. Hair testing detects an individual's drug use for a period going back months before the test, while urine testing, currently the only pre-employment driver screen required by law, only detects drug use for a few days back and can be easily subverted by an applicant. Supporters of the measure said that would help keep potentially unsafe drivers off the road. However, the test may have an unintended consequence, namely that it will disqualify applicants that might have passed with a urine test alone, thus further shrinking the available pool of drivers.

Reaction to the House vote was predictably mixed. For example, the American Trucking Associations, which represents large, for-hire trucking firms, was mostly satisfied with the legislation. However, highway safety groups decried it as a huge step backward in protecting the traveling public. The only positive action, in their view, was that the House killed an amendment that would have raised the weight limit of trucks travelling the national highway system to 91,000 pounds of gross vehicle weight—tractor, trailer, and cargo—from the current 80,000-pound ceiling. The current ceiling, with the exception of six states, has been in effect nationwide since 1982.

In the bill, the House renewed the Export-Import Bank of the United States, whose charter expired at the end of June after conservatives succeeded in blocking its reauthorization. The Ex-Im bank, which helps international businesses secure loans through the promise of loan guarantees, has long been considered both a source of needed financial assistance for U.S. firms competing abroad, and, to opponents, a tool of cronyism by granting aid to well-connected firms that aren't in need of it.

About the Author

Mark B. Solomon
Executive Editor - News
Mark Solomon joined DC VELOCITY as senior editor in August 2008, and was promoted to his current position on January 1, 2015. He has spent more than 30 years in the transportation, logistics and supply chain management fields as a journalist and public relations professional. From 1989 to 1994, he worked in Washington as a reporter for the Journal of Commerce, covering the aviation and trucking industries, the Department of Transportation, Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court. Prior to that, he worked for Traffic World for seven years in a similar role. From 1994 to 2008, Mr. Solomon ran Media-Based Solutions, a public relations firm based in Atlanta. He graduated in 1978 with a B.A. in journalism from The American University in Washington, D.C.

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