Congress passes highway bill

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The U.S. House and Senate on Friday, June 29, reached agreement on transportation legislation for the first time since 2005, both passing the highway reauthorization bill cleared by a joint committee earlier this week. The bill, which maintains current spending levels at $101.3 billion for the next 27 months, now goes to President Obama for his signature.

At the same time, the House also passed an amendment to transportation spending legislation, separate from the encompassing highway authorization, that blocks funding for the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop or implement rules requiring electronic logging devices. The actual ELD mandate is part of the highway bill and could be funded later.

“Critical reforms in this legislation consolidate our transportation programs, significantly streamline the bureaucratic project process, encourage private sector participation in building infrastructure and give states more flexibility to spend limited Highway Trust Fund resources where they are most needed,” said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chair of the House Transportation Committee. “The federal government has only provided mandates and red tape.”

The House passed the highway bill 373-52, while the Senate approved the legislation 74-19. “I am so glad that House Republicans met Democrats halfway, as Senate Republicans did months ago,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

House and Senate committee conferees agreed on the compromise legislation Wednesday, June 27, and Senate aides worked Wednesday and early Thursday, June 28, to put the agreement into legislative language. The current three-month highway bill extension, originally set to expire Saturday, June 30, is the ninth since the September 2009 expiration of SAFETEA-LU, the most recent long-term transportation funding law.

Obama late Friday, June 29, signed a one-week continuance of the latest funding extension to give time for the full legislation to reach his desk. The president is expected to sign the full law in the coming days.

“This is a good bipartisan bill that will create jobs, strengthen our transportation system and grow our economy,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “It builds on our aggressive safety efforts, including our fight against distracted driving and our push to improve transit and motor carrier safety. The bill also provides states and communities with two years of steady funding to build the roads, bridges and transit systems they need. We look forward to working with Congress, states and local communities to put this bill to work quickly and effectively.”

Bill Graves, president and chief executive officer of the American Trucking Associations, said ATA praised the committee’s inclusion of several initiatives advocated by the group, including:
• A mandate for ELDs;
• The creation of a clearinghouse to track drug and alcohol test results;
• A study of crashworthiness standards for large trucks;
• The establishment of standards for systems to provide employers with timely notifications of drivers’ moving violations; and
• Mandatory testing of new carriers entering the industry to verify their knowledge of safety requirements.

“This new legislation will impact carriers of all sizes and affect everyone from owners to dispatchers to drivers,” said Jay Coughlan, chairman and chief executive officer of Xata Corp., a provider of electronic logging devices. “This is the largest piece of legislation in the industry in recent history, and we’re prepared to help carriers adjust to this new reality.”

The bill also requires DOT to conduct a field study of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s pending changes to the restart provisions in the hours-of-service regulations; ATA has pressed DOT to confirm their benefits in a “real-world” field study before implementing the pending changes. The bill also lays a foundation for improvements in freight transportation – including reforms to the planning process intended to reduce costs and speed construction projects.

Graves added, however, that ATA was “extremely disappointed” that Congress “once again kicked the can down the road” with respect to truck productivity by not including increases in truck size and weight limits that would “have a net positive effect on highway safety and maintenance.”

Graves also dismissed the House’s approval of an amendment offered by Rep. Jeff Landry (R-La.) to prevent DOT from going forward with the electronic logging device mandate. “Adoption of this amendment is a step back,” he said. “Though opponents of honest, fair and efficient enforcement of important safety rules have used this back door to thwart the will of Congress, we fully expect that the language of the conference report – agreed to by House and Senate leaders of both parties – will be the final word on the use of electronic logs and that DOT will quickly move to require this important safety technology on all trucks.”