Highway Bill Delivery Heads Into Last Mile

Nov. 18, 2015
Getting 33-foot trailers and teenage truckers out of the highway bill, and getting some 400,000 safe carriers in, are among the more contentious trucking-related issues Congress will work through this week with a new multi-year surface transportation funding plan on the table—and with the current authorization set to expire Friday.

Getting 33-foot trailers and teenage truckers out of the highway bill, and getting some 400,000 safe carriers in, are among the more contentious trucking-related issues Congress will work through this week with a new multi-year surface transportation funding plan on the table—and with the current authorization set to expire Friday.

Along with an expected disagreement between House and Senate representatives over transit funding and positive train control implementation deadlines, the Senate last week approved a motion that instructs conferees to oppose language in the highway bill that would allow states to permit 33-ft. twin-trailer combinations on the federal Interstate system.

While the Senate’s own Dept. of Transportation budget appropriation for next year includes such language, the provision made it out of committee by a single vote. Motion sponsors Sens. Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) proposed instead an amendment that would require DOT to complete a comprehensive safety study before longer trucks are permitted on highways. It would also require the agency to conduct a formal rulemaking process with public notice and comment period.

“Thirty-eight states say these longer trucks are not safe, and they tell us that they don’t want them on the highways and byways,” Wicker said. “I think we should respect their decision. I am hopeful that those who are writing the omnibus appropriations bill and the final highway bill have taken note of the Senate’s position.”

The Coalition for Efficient & Responsible Trucking, an association of large less-than-truckload carriers, contends Wicker’s motion ignores evidence that proves twin 33-foot trailers are safe.

“When policymakers would rather punt than lead, they call for another comprehensive study,” writes CERT spokeman Ed Patru in an email to supporters, complete with references to a number of reports on the matter. “And if they don’t like the results, they call for yet another study.”

And there’s more pushback from the Senate side of the Capitol on other House provisions. Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Bill Nelson (D-FL) led a partisan effort calling on Senate leadership  to oppose language that would “erode safety, short-change consumer privacy, undermine environmental and energy security measures, or erect roadblocks to holding industry accountable.”

“Making the necessary investments in our nation’s infrastructure—a goal we strongly support—should not come at the expense of weaker safety and consumer protections,” the letter reads. Among the bullets points, the letter specifically calls out “provisions that hamper truck safety, including allowing teenage truck drivers on our highways.”

And that’s just one item on the call-to-action list put out last week by the Truck Safety Coalition.

“This is the last chance for lawmakers to remove anti-safety provisions that will lead to more truck fatalities and injuries,” the coalition says.

Along with bigger heavier trucks and allowing drivers under age 21 to hold interstate CDLs, the advocacy group opposes Compliance, Safety, Accountability reform; any delay in rulemaking to increase minimum financial responsibility for carriers; weakening driver hours of service rules; and limiting shipper and broker liability.

Indeed, changes in the proposed carrier hiring standard have been called for, unsuccessfully, by several of the groups who pushed to have the measure included in the House version of the highway bill. At issue is the provision’s protection for shippers and brokers who hire carriers with a DOT-designated “satisfactory” rating. But that leaves the vast majority of licensed carriers (more than 400,000, typically small trucking companies) that have not been through the official rating process—and who also may have good safety histories.

And that’s to say nothing of those carriers who, for various reasons, have a “conditional” rating. A group of nine transportation organizations have formed an ad hoc coalition “to protect small motor carriers,” and last week wrote to House and Senate conferees to point to the problem with the House language and to support the “broader” Senate version the final highway bill.

“However, we object to the adoption of any hiring standard that would deny immunity to shippers and brokers that use any carrier found fit to operate by FMCSA,” the letter emphasizes.

The coalition, which includes the National Association of Small Trucking Cos., the Western States Trucking Assn., and the Alliance for Safe and Efficient Truck Transportation, among others, argues that the “fit to operate equals fit to use” standard is incorporated in current law and the settlement in NASTC v. FMCSA over publicly posted CSA scores.

“Congress should not prejudice or compromise the ability of licensed, authorized and insured carriers to obtain freight,” the letter continues. “Proponents of a hiring standard that excludes conditional carriers might argue that carriers can fix their predicament by taking the steps necessary to obtain an upgrade. FMCSA is under no legal obligation, however, to review a petition to upgrade a conditional rating under any specific schedule. And even if the agency wanted to do so, it does not have the resources to handle a sudden influx of upgrade petitions.”

For emphasis, the letters included a list of carriers with a conditional rating in each member’s respective state. In House Transportation Committee Chaiman Bill Shuster’s Pennsylvania, for example, the roster includes more than 100 such carriers representing more 4,000 trucks and drivers.

Additionally, the American Trucking Assns. is among 40 transportation, business, and labor groups who wrote leaders in the House and Senate to suggest that more funding, and sooner, “is far superior to a six-year bill with status quo funding levels.”

"The goal of the conference committee should be to produce final legislation that confronts the nation’s surface transportation challenges with policy reforms and increased federal investment levels," the letter says. "While the reliability of future federal highway and public transportation funds is a critical benefit of a multi-year reauthorization bill, such predictability alone is not sufficient to drive needed surface transportation improvements."

And Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has written to Congress seeking additional infrastructure funding, specifically an increase in TIFIA loans and TIGER grant authorization. The Obama administration also voiced a number of safety concerns, including the provisions to the remove carrier safety scores from public view, the hiring standard, and teenage drivers.

Many of the same trucking issues are part of the T-HUD appropriations passed by each chamber, but Congress has yet to finalize the federal government’s budget for the coming year—so the provisions are also eligible for inclusion in any omnibus plan worked out in the coming weeks.