Transportation bill clears U.S. House

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A federal transportation bill that includes a ban on funding for the Bush administration’s cross-border trucking program cleared the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday, Nov. 14. A vote by the U.S. Senate, which is expected to pass the same bill, likely won’t happen until after the Thanksgiving holidays.

While approved 270-147 by the House, H.R. 3074’s future is in doubt. President Bush has threatened to veto the $105.6 billion package, and Wednesday’s vote fell eight short of the number needed for an override. Bush says the bill spends about $5.5 billion more than a version submitted by the White House.

The fiscal 2008 transportation spending bill was approved by a House-Senate conference committee on Nov. 8. The committee’s version retained language that would block funding for the Department of Transportation’s pilot program allowing long-haul trucking across the U.S.-Mexico border.

DOT spokesman Brian Turmail told CCJ on Nov. 9 that Transportation Secretary Mary Peters regretted the House-Senate conference committee’s decision to retain the funding ban, but that she isn’t giving up on the cross-border program until a prohibition becomes law.

The committee’s version of the transportation bill also retained language that would prohibit interstate tolling in Texas. The amendment was introduced to the Senate’s version of the bill by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and was kept in the final version.

The bill also contains $1 billion to address deficient bridges across America – accepting an amendment by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., for a 25 percent boost to bridge funding – following the Aug. 1 collapse of the Interstate 35-West bridge in Minneapolis, which killed 13 people and injured more than 100. H.R. 3074 also specifies a separate $195 million for a new I-35W bridge across the Mississippi River.

The 25 percent increase in bridge funding, however, would still lag behind the pace of spending contemplated in legislation (H.R. 3999) sponsored by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairmain James Oberstar. Oberstar’s plan is to invest $25 billion in bridge repairs, to be paid for with a 5-cent-per-gallon increase in the federal fuel tax.

The cross-border program, which has been in place since Sept. 6, allows a limited number of Mexican trucking companies to operate beyond the 25-mile commercial zone in the United States. Under a reciprocity agreement with Mexico, the one-year pilot program also allows a limited number of U.S. carriers to operate into Mexico.

Critics, including the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and the Teamsters, argue that the program lacks enough safeguards to ensure that Mexican trucks meet the same safety standards as American trucks. Earlier this year, the Teamsters sought unsuccessfully to obtain an emergency injunction blocking the program before it began.

Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa said he fully expected the funding ban to win final passage. “Letting trucks from Mexico drive everywhere in America is unpopular for a good reason: it’s dangerous and illegal,” Hoffa said.

The Teamsters Union also is suing to block the program in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The union submitted its arguments to the court in October, and the government has until Monday, Nov. 19, to reply. The case is expected to be heard in February.

“The Teamsters won’t quit the fight to stop the Bush administration’s reckless program,” Hoffa said. “Our members will urge their representatives to override the veto, and we will continue our lawsuit to prevent the program from starting up again.”