More money for rest areas?

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Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has given the go-ahead for states to use a previously untapped pot of federal funds to provide additional rest areas for truck drivers along major highways. The money comes from federal funds states have forfeited over the past several years because they failed to pass laws banning open alcohol containers in vehicles or setting mandatory maximum penalties on drivers for repeat drunk driving offenses.

Under a 1996 federal law, states lose up to 3 percent of their federal funds until they pass those laws. The surplus funds go into a pot used by the states for highway safety improvements. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also allocates some of the money to states. The pool of unused funds could swell in fiscal 2003, when the penalties double to up to 6 percent.

Seeing an opportunity to use that money for added truck parking spaces, the American Trucking Associations in July asked Mineta whether the funds could be spent to modify truck weigh stations and commuter parking lots for use as truck parking at night. In a Sept. 24 letter to ATA, Mineta replied that the funds could be so used. ATA estimates that once penalties escalate in 2003, nearly $500 million a year will be available from state penalty funds. Because of strict limitations on the use of that money, however, it’s difficult for states to use it.

“So, there are a lot of dollars out there that need to be transferred, and this is a way for the state transportation secretaries to use this money for what we think is a very good purpose,” says Richard Holcomb, ATA general counsel and senior vice president for regulatory affairs. He estimates that there are a “whole bunch of states” with excess penalty funds.

Whether states choose to use the funds for truck driving spaces, however, remains to be seen. In order to use the penalty funds for the commuter parking modifications, a state would first have to conduct a survey that documents the safety problem posed by a shortage of truck rest areas, show that traffic accidents and deaths could be reduced, select worthy projects and transfer the money to their hazard elimination programs.