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Congress Forges 5-Year Highway Bill Compromise

December 01, 2015, by David Cullen - Also by this author

Photo: David Cullen
Photo: David Cullen

The House-Senate conference committee charged with writing a compromise highway bill announced completion today of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act (H.R. 22), which transportation leaders on Capitol Hill hailed as “a fully funded five-year plan for surface transportation reauthorization.”

The bill would spend some $205 billion on highway and $48 billion on transit projects over the next five years. 

The FAST Act resulted from ironing out differences between the STRR Act passed by the House last month and the DRIVE Act passed by the Senate in July. Both of those bills were to run for six years, but the Senate measure would have only authorized three years of funding.

The House and the Senate are expected to vote on the compromise FAST Act this week so this final bill can be sent to President Obama for signature before the current short-term highway bill funding extension expires on December 4.

Specific to motor carriers, the FAST Act reauthorizes the programs of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration through FY 2020 and includes “several reforms to improve truck and bus safety while reducing regulatory burdens,” according to the bicameral conference committee’s explanatory statement.

These include: 

  • Requiring FMCSA “to use the best available science and data” when developing rulemakings and by “establishing a process under which the public or the motor carrier industry can petition FMCSA to revise or repeal regulations if they are no longer current, consistent, and uniformly enforced.”
  • Reforming the Compliance, Safety, Accountability program by requiring a “thorough review and reform of the current enforcement prioritization program to ensure that FMCSA’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability analysis is the most reliable possible for the public and for enforcement purposes. Following reviews by the GAO, the Department of Transportation Inspector General and various law enforcement organizations, the Act requires that FMCSA analysis of enforcement data be temporarily removed from public websites on the day after enactment, until the agency has completed reforms required by this Act. Enforcement and inspection data reported by states and enforcement agencies will remain available for public view.”
  • Authorizing the use of hair-testing as an acceptable alternative to urine-testing in conducting pre-employment testing for the use of a controlled substance and in conducting random testing for the use of a controlled substance if the operator  was subject to hair-testing for pre-employment testing. However, the conference committee noted that “FMCSA has informed the conferees and the conferees agree that nothing in section 5402 authorizes the use of hair testing as an alternative to urine tests until the Department of Health and Human Services establishes federal standards for hair testing.”
  • Establishing a pilot program for veterans and Armed Forces reserve members between the ages of 18 and 21 who received (truck driver) training during their service in the military to drive certain commercial motor vehicles in interstate commerce. Clearly, this was a compromise that watered down the proposal in the House version of the highway bill that would have required DOT to conduct a study of the feasibility of authorizing those holding CDLs who are between 19 and a half and  21 years of age to run interstate and then, based on the results, compel FMCSA to establish a pilot program for such younger truck drivers.

  • Awarding grant priority to programs that train veterans for careers in the trucking industry and reduces regulatory barriers faced by veterans seeking employment as commercial truck and bus drivers.

“This legislation is a vital investment in our country," said transportation leaders on Capitol Hill in a statement. "A safe, efficient surface transportation network is fundamentally necessary to our quality of life and our economy, and this conference report provides long-term certainty for states and local governments, and good reforms and improvements to the programs that sustain our roads, bridges, transit, and passenger rail system.  We knew that reaching an agreement on this measure would be challenging, but every member of the conference committee was certainly up to the task.  We appreciate their hard work in this effort, and we look forward to moving this measure forward and getting it signed into law.”

The statement above was attributed to: House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA), who is also chairman of the surface transportation bill Conference Committee; Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who is the Conference Committee’s vice chairman; House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-OR); and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Ranking Member Barbara Boxer (D-CA).

If approved by both chambers, the FAST Act will be the first highway funding bill passed to run longer than two years since 2005.

Still, yet another-- albeit a very short-- funding patch will have to be slapped in place if the House and Senate don’t pass the FAST Act by Dec. 4, when the current extension authorized just two weeks ago runs out.

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