Highway bill draws mixed response

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The six-year, $286.4 billion highway spending bill, touching on many trucking interests, received mixed reactions from industry groups.

President Bush is expected to sign the legislation this week.

“This bill funds vital new transportation projects, holds the line on gas taxes and avoids adding to the deficit,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. “More importantly for America’s drivers, this bill contains significant new safety provisions, including the creation of a $5 billion core highway safety program.”

America’s truck drivers, however, did not receive the mandatory fuel surcharge that had been considered for inclusion in the massive bill.

The American Trucking Associations takes some credit for blocking the surcharge, saying it would have increased consumer costs for everything shipped by truck.

The Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Association supported establishment of a surcharge that would cover fuel costs over a $1.10-per-gallon benchmark. The surcharge would have been paid by the shippers and passed along to fuel buyers. The Truckload Carriers Association also had supported a surcharge.

ATA is unhappy that the bill does not write into statutory law the current hours-of-service rule, a strategy that had been sought by the U.S. Department of Transportation and many in the trucking industry. Barring another legislative extension, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration will be forced to issue a revised regulation as required by a federal appeals court. FMCSA’s temporary reprieve from the court order runs out Sept. 30.

“We are disappointed that they failed to codify hours-of-service regulations as the administration requested,” said Bill Graves, the ATA president. “We remain concerned that Congress’ inaction on hours of service will negatively impact overall highway safety.”

The bill, however, did clarify the agricultural exemption to the hours regulations. The exemption would become permanent in federal law and define what agricultural commodities and farm supplies commercial transporters could use during the planting and harvesting season.

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The bill defines “agricultural commodity” as any agricultural commodity, non-processed food, feed, fiber or livestock and insects. Farm supplies are any products that aid in the growing or harvesting of agricultural commodities during the planting and harvesting seasons within each state, or any livestock feed.

“It is imperative that commercial transporters of agricultural commodities have the flexibility to meet transportation demands during peak planting and harvesting seasons,” said Fletcher Hall, executive director of the Agricultural and Food Transporters Conference. AFTC is an affiliate of ATA.

Another key point of the bill funds programs for law enforcement agents to enforce traffic violations by other motorists around commercial trucks.

Also, the bill would set up a system where carriers could electronically check the safety records of prospective drivers.

The bill allows a limited number of tolls on existing interstates, a provision opposed by the trucking industry. ATA believes the “tolls are an inefficient funding mechanism that double-taxes motor carriers and causes substantial diversion of traffic to other, less-safe roads.” OOIDA and the National Association of Truck Stop Owners also opposed the tolls provision.

NATSO also was disappointed with how the bill addresses commercial vehicle parking needs. “Congress should only fund additional rest area parking when the private sector is unable to meet truck parking demands and in areas where a true shortage exists,” NATSO President Lisa Mullings said.

Another portion of the bill, the Interstate Oasis Program, allows states to partner with interchange businesses to meet highway users’ needs. The program, proposed by NATSO, addresses the closing of many state-run rest areas by setting up signs directing drivers to businesses that have agreed to give non-customers access to their facilities.

“This is a great program that will guarantee highway users a clean, safe place to stop and provides a virtually no-cost solution for states with budget concerns,” Mullings said.

The bill also revises the screening process for hazmat drivers, requiring the Transportation Security Administration to tell carriers if a driver fails to meet security criteria; it also mandates TSA to eliminate duplicative federal background checks. Canadian and Mexican hazmat carriers would be required to undergo similar background checks.

The bill also sets aside $5 million for truck driver training. ATA and others in the industry have voiced increasing concern in the last few years that the driver shortage is serious and getting worse.

An FMCSA spokesman said the agency would have no comment on the bill until it either is signed or vetoed.