The Senate Commerce Committee late yesterday approved a six-year reauthorization of the nation's transportation funding programs that, when combined with another Senate bill, auger potentially significant changes to the freight sector.
The "Comprehensive Transportation and Consumer Protection Act of 2015," passed by a 13-11 margin, requires the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to commission a study by the Transportation Research Board of the FMCSA's controversial Compliance, Safety, and Accountability (CSA) program that grades carriers based on a series of metrics and assigns them safety scores. The bill requires FMCSA to remove Safety Measurement System (SMS) data from public viewing until the Research Board publishes its report, and recommendations from a corrective action plan have been implemented.
The measure, if it survives the full legislative process, would be a victory for the American Trucking Associations, which has long urged FMCSA to remove SMS scores from public view because they don't effectively identify high-risk carriers and they rely on a limited amount of data. ATA has called on FMCSA to revise the SMS methodology to account for the limited amount of available information.
The bill also authorizes the Secretary of Transportation to launch a six-year pilot program to allow states to enter into reciprocal agreements authorizing licensed drivers between 18 and 21 to operate on interstate highways. Under current law, a driver cannot operate a commercial motor vehicle in interstate commerce until the age of 21. However, drivers between 18 and 21 can operate within the borders of the state where they are licensed. Trucking interests, which face a worsening driver shortage, say it makes no sense that a driver can operate 500 miles within California but not be allowed to drive 50 miles to and from any of the states that border it.
In addition, the bill gives trucking companies permission 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, the only pre-employment driver screen allowed by law, only detects drug use for a few days back and can be easily subverted by an applicant.
The bill will advance to the Senate floor along with legislation known as the "Drive Act," which was passed late last month by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The six-year, $278 billion reauthorization measure includes a minimum annual investment of $2 billion in funding for freight infrastructure, capping out at $13.5 billion at the end of the six-year period. It also calls for a freight-focused competitive grant program and state-level freight planning with public- and private-sector involvement.
The two bills, along with assorted bills that have already been advanced, will coalesce into what is popularly known as the "Highway Bill," which is the legislation that establishes guidelines for reauthorizing transport programs. The legislation doesn't determine how those programs will be paid for.