The multi-year highway bill is in the last stretch of negotiations before being sent to the president. The six-year transportation bill passed the House earlier this month authorizing $325 billion in transportation through the 2021 federal budget year for the construction and maintenance of roads, bridges and transit systems – including $261 billion for highways alone.
The differences between the recently passed House bill and the highway bill passed by the Senate back in July must be resolved by a conference committee comprised of members from each house of Congress before a final bill can be sent to President Obama’s to sign and become law. The conference committee now has until December 4th to pass the long-term bill, after passing a two-week highway funding extension last week to ensure the country’s road and bridge accounts won’t run out while the bill is finalized. It is anticipated resolution could happen as early as today.
The American Trucking Association (ATA) has praised the House for passing the long-term bill, as it takes steps to improve highway safety and efficiency. The ATA commends the lawmakers’ continued support for the federal role in transportation instead of leaving the funding of roads and bridges to the states. However, the recent House version of the bill has been causing controversy among the trucking industry and may pose problems for small carriers and owner-operators.
The following lists a few key topics of the House bill that are brewing among the trucking industry.
• The House bill, if law, would require the FMCSA to remove the carrier rankings in the Compliance, Safety, Accountability program from public view and require regulators to rework the program. Critics fear this will benefit only carriers with poor safety scores.
• The bill sets forth criteria brokers and shippers should use when determining whether to hire a motor carrier. It states that a motor carrier must have in effect a satisfactory safety rating from FMCSA. Critics say these “interim hiring standards” for those hiring carriers (such as brokers) could damage owner-operators’ and other small carriers’ ability to secure customers because the standard is written in a way that discourages business from a large number of unrated carriers – which make up a majority of the industry. Only a minority of motor carriers have actually been reviewed in full, which is the only way FMCSA can issue a safety rating. Therefore, there is a fear that the standard will exclude independents and small carriers working with brokers. But, lawmakers will continue to work on on this section’s wording during the House-Senate conferencing over the next two weeks.
• The House bill allows carriers to satisfy driver drug testing rules by testing hair samples only, instead of by urine analysis.
• The bill lowers the minimum age for interstate truck drivers from 21 to 18 years of age. It sets up a program that allows states to enter into compacts to let under-21 CDL holders cross state lines. While some are against the lower age limit because studies show younger drivers increase the number of crashes, the ATA views this lower age limit as a benefit. The trucking industry currently loses potential drivers who graduate high school because they are not old enough to drive interstate, so they instead enter other professions. Therefore, these changes may benefit trucking companies struggling to find enough drivers to fill jobs.
• The bill will eliminate time limits on the time drivers are allowed to be on the road, reducing mandatory rest requirements. Safety groups are against exemptions for the federal rest requirement, advocating that fatigued drivers do not create safer roads.
• The House bill rejected an amendment that would increase the truck weight limits on interstate highways from 80,000 pounds to 91,000 pounds for trucks with six axles. Advocates for the increase believe the amendment would improve efficiency by shipping large commodities while also reducing the number of trucks on interstate highways. However, safety groups again argue that bigger trucks do not create safer roads. This issue will be resolved during the House-Senate conferencing.
The multi-year highway bill will be a six-year bill. That is, if Congress is able to find a way to pay for the last three years. As of now, the bill only provides enough money for the first three years of the period, since lawmakers have been unable to resolve political differences over funding the entire six years. And lawmakers hope their two-week highway funding extension will be their last as they work on agreeing to the multi-year highway bill by December 4th.
Anna Newell is an associate attorney at Roberts Perryman. Anna’s practice focuses on transportation, insurance coverage and defense.
Roberts Perryman has been a leader in transportation defense for over 50 years with offices in St. Louis and Springfield, MO and Belleville, IL. http://www.robertsperryman.com