As I write this column, much of the industry is anxiously awaiting a congressional fix for the rapidly depleting Highway Trust Fund and the longer-term problem of funding critical infrastructure repairs. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has promised a short-term plan to keep programs funded until the end of 2015, but once again, there's virtually no chance that a long-term solution will be enacted by May 31, when the current extension to last year's extension expires. By the time June 1 rolls around, we no doubt will have in place another temporary patchwork solution to a serious problem.
During the past year, there have been a number of politically motivated but inadequate suggestions, including devolution, or simply shifting the entire funding mechanism to the states. Considering that several states have already increased their own fuel taxes and pushed ahead with infrastructure improvements, this idea is not so far-fetched. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has suggested that we simply raise the fuel tax, but that "hot potato" is not going to get much support, particularly this close to the election. We have seen legislation to "Move America," "Grow America," and "Build America," but on the infrastructure front, America is sitting still.
But that doesn't mean Congress is sitting still. On April 28, the House Appropriations Committee released the 2016 Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development funding bill. The committee's press release is fairly straightforward, and the recital of the bill's highlights doesn't raise any red flags. But dig a little deeper and you'll uncover provisions that would seem to have no place in an appropriations bill, unless someone wanted to slip them into law with a minimum of attention. It has been suggested that these provisions were an early Christmas present for the trucking industry, which spent $9.85 million for lobbying and $7.96 million in political contributions last year, no correlation intended.
One provision of the bill would curtail efforts by the Department of Transportation to take another look at the carrier liability insurance minimum. It now stands at $750,000 but has not been changed since 1980, in spite of inflation.
Another would make it more difficult for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to try to reinstate the "34-hour restart" requirement established in 2013. That's the provision in the truck driver hours-of-service (HOS) rule that required drivers to get two consecutive rest periods between the hours of 1 and 5 a.m.
Most interesting and most concerning to many is a provision that would allow two trailers of up to 33 feet in length to be hauled in tandem—up from the 28-foot restriction now in place. What this has to do with appropriations is unclear, but the provision has the backing of FedEx, Con-way, and others. Proponents argue that this would cut down on the number of trucks on the highways, save fuel, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They also maintain that the new 84-foot-long rigs would pose no threat to highway safety. These arguments are similar to those put forward by supporters of raising truck weight limits a few years ago, albeit for different reasons. This time, the push is a response to the increased volume of lightweight packages resulting from the surge in e-commerce—a trend that is only expected to gather force. The Coalition for Efficient and Responsible Trucking, whose members include FedEx and UPS, predicts that this segment of traffic will grow 40 percent over the next 10 years.
Critics include Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, who says that legislation of this type should not be included in appropriations bills, but rather, fully heard and debated in Congress, a logical objection in my view. The Truck Safety Coalition cites the potential for increases in truck-related deaths and injuries, and contends that provisions that cater to "special trucking interests" will raise risks to drivers and the general public.
The end result of all this remains to be seen, but so it goes in the hallowed halls of Congress.