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President submits transportation budget numbers

Paul Cullen Jr.
The Cullen Law Firm, PLLC

While the Congress attempts to pull together a budget for a fiscal year 2003 that is more than one-third over, President Bush has proposed an ambitious budget for fiscal year 2004.

The president proposed the expected budget increases for the Department of Defense and for Homeland Security, but also proposed increases for almost every other federal agency, including the Department of Transportation.

The president proposes a $2.9 billion budget increase for the Department of Transportation to a total $54.3 billion. A breakdown by DOT gives us some understanding of this enormous number.

FMCSA budget — The president proposes a 22 percent increase in spending at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The total $447 million budget would direct $223 million to “increase aggressive state enforcement of interstate commercial truck and bus regulations,” and $224 million for oversight of hazmat transportation, federal motor carrier safety programs and for the federal government’s effort to enforce safety rules on Mexican trucks at the border. This budget appears to increase funds for state roadside enforcement efforts, federal inspection efforts directed at Mexican trucks at the border and on-site safety reviews of new motor carriers.

TSA budget — The move of the Transportation Security Administration out of the DOT to the Department of Homeland Security caused a corresponding budget shift. The total budget for the DHS will be $36.2 billion. Due to the nature of the 9/11 tragedy, the TSA has focused its attention on aviation security, and that emphasis is certainly reflected in its budget. Out of the TSA’s $4.8 billion budget, $4.3 billion is dedicated to aviation security and a mere $85 million for “land security.” An additional $55 million is earmarked for the Transportation Worker Identification Credential, or TWIC card proposal.

The disparity between security budgets might be seen as the government’s continued undervaluing of the trucking industry. The U.S. economy certainly relies on the trucking industry more than the airline industry, and one would think security efforts would reflect that fact. But the public is more aware of how threats to airline safety affect them and their travel convenience. It is those concerns and the way in which the terrorist acts of 9/11 were committed that lawmakers are responding to.

On the positive side, though, the more limited budget for “land security” gives the federal government less leeway to rush to create new motor carrier regulations that could have a questionable security benefit.

The president’s budget is usually seen as a benchmark from which Congress begins its work for the year. While Congress is likely to make significant changes to many parts of the budget, lawmakers have thus far expressed little concern for the president’s “land security” priorities.

Commercial driver’s license disqualification
In January, the FMCSA clarified rules it published last year establishing when convictions for a moving violation in vehicles other than a truck could mean the disqualification of a driver’s CDL. Congress gave the agency the mandate to create these rules when it established the FMCSA. Congress was motivated by specific reports of CMV operators involved in serious accidents who were still driving a truck despite the fact that they had been convicted of offenses that resulted in suspension or revocation of their non-CMV driving privileges.

When the FMCSA published its rule, though, it read as though a CDL holder would be disqualified if he or she were convicted of a serious moving violation that could be penalized by revocation of non-CMV driving privileges.

The subtle difference between that rule and the new final rule is that a CDL will only be suspended if the state actually suspended a driver’s non-CMV driving privileges. This ensures the federal penalty does not have a more stringent effect on CMV drivers than a state court determines on a case-by-case basis.

There is a significant exception to this rule, however. FMCSA reaffirmed its rule that a CDL could be permanently revoked if its holder is convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol — even if under state law, non-CMV driving privileges would only be suspended temporarily. 

FMCSA said although it could have established a more lenient standard that paralleled the penalties in state law, it felt it had the responsibility to establish the strictest standard possible. The agency reasoned that a person who commits a DUI in a non-CMV is more likely to commit a DUI behind the wheel of a CMV, and that it “must take action to reduce to the greatest extent practicable, the likelihood of unsafe drivers being allowed to operate CMVs on public roads.”

While nobody disagrees with the intent of removing drunken drivers from the road, this is just one more example of FMCSA imposing the maximum penalty on truckdrivers to address a problem that contributes to only a fraction of a percentage point of all accidents involving trucks. It remains a mystery as to when the federal government is going to get just as tough on the cause of most accidents involving trucks: automobile drivers.

Who gets the sniper award?
The trucking industry was abuzz late last year when truckdriver and Kentucky native Ron Lantz was credited with spotting the Washington, DC, area sniper’s car at a Maryland rest stop. Mr. Lantz blocked the entry of the rest area with his truck, called 9-1-1, and led police to find the snipers sleeping in their car. So did Mr. Lantz get the $500,000 reward?

Despite the credit the police and media gave to Mr. Lantz, he is not the only one in line for the reward. Other persons from around the country gave police information that allowed them to identify a possible suspect and publicize the make and model of his car.

Nobody, however, has received reward money yet. The police may wait until the snipers have been brought to trial and convicted before they distribute the reward money. By doing this, they can ensure that persons who gave them important information will remain cooperative if they are needed as witnesses at the trial. LL

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