By Keith Goble
state legislative editor
With the end of the year approaching, several of the major issues important to truck drivers have been settled in state legislatures across the country. The status of only a handful of items affecting drivers remains up in the air.
Among the issues that drew considerable discussion the past several months were measures to alter speed limits and fuel taxes. Other efforts focused on such items as toll roads, idling limits and lane usage.
OOIDA’s advice — get involved
With trucking-related issues certain to once again draw plenty of attention this coming year, it’s important that truckers establish a line of communication with their elected officials, said Todd Spencer, OOIDA executive vice president.
“Most lawmakers would like to be knowledgeable on the subjects they deal with. So they value input of those individuals who can actually take time to inform and educate them,” he said.
“The more they know on any particular topic, the more likely they are to make the right decision. With passage of time, more and more people in essence become experts on knowing how to influence lawmakers, and that includes those folks who have little or no regard for transportation providers.”
Spencer also emphasized the importance of voting.
“Your words and insight have a much greater impact on lawmakers if you are a registered voter and vote on a regular basis,” he said.
Efforts to slow large trucks on various roadways by creating split speed limits were debated in Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico and Oklahoma.
Proposals to permit trucks to travel at the same speed as other vehicles drew consideration in Illinois and Ohio. Meanwhile, Iowa and Kansas sought to increase speeds for all vehicles.
Despite the amount of attention lawmakers nationwide gave to speed limits, only Illinois sent legislation to its governor for consideration. The bill, SB2374, would eliminate provisions in Illinois law that set up a slower, 55 mph speed limit for any vehicle over 8,000 pounds traveling on rural interstates. Other vehicles on those roads can travel 65 mph; all speed limits would remain 55 mph in urban areas. Gov. Rod Blagojevich, however, vetoed the measure. It now awaits a possible override attempt by bill supporters during a veto session scheduled for this month.
Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said that over the next year, efforts to alter speed limits are likely to again draw a lot of consideration in several state legislatures as newly elected lawmakers take office with an eye on tweaking existing law.
“I suspect we will see more of the same in many states,” said Spencer. “As new lawmakers get elected they bring new ideas and they try to advance those new ideas. Often, those positions are based on personal experiences rather than actual highway safety research and results. As frustrating as it may be, speed limits aren’t about safety, they are about politics.”
Legislation to tweak fuel tax rates saw considerable debate in various states.
With the price of fuel setting records this election year, it didn’t take long for the burden of higher consumer costs to become a political issue. As a result, some legislatures abandoned the usual revenue stream and sacrificed dollars in an effort to appease potential voters.
Lawmakers in California, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Virginia heeded consumer pleas by refusing to approve measures that would have increased fuel taxes.
In Ohio and North Carolina, legislators went as far as to offer proposals intended to ease the burden of escalating prices at the pump. Neither state, however, forwarded a proposal to its governor offering a price break.
With election-year politics likely a distant memory by the time legislatures convene their 2005 session, Spencer said he anticipates many states will consider boosting fuel taxes to address revenue needs.
“I fully anticipate that will be on the table in Washington, DC, too,” he said.
Rising traffic congestion, aging highways, the uncertainty of federal transportation aid and demands by drivers for better roads have pressured states to come up with alternative revenue sources.
Initiatives to toll certain, if not all drivers were among the options up for debate in Florida, Hawaii, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee.
Only Florida managed to pass legislation — S1456 — into law. With Gov. Jeb Bush’s endorsement, the state now is permitted to partner with private companies in building or adding to roads. The contract with private industry is expected to add to the number of lanes across the state while allowing companies to collect tolls from all drivers to pay off their investment.
Meanwhile, Georgia and Washington lawmakers offered measures to charge commuters a fee to access lanes intended to bypass slower traffic.
Only Georgia authorized its state transportation officials to create high-occupancy toll lanes. The new state law, previously SB489, sets the stage for motorists who drive solo to pay a fee to use the lanes. The state plans to spend as much as $400,000 to determine whether the lanes — thought to smooth traffic by charging fluctuating rates depending on congestion levels — can accommodate paid traffic.
Spencer said the issue of toll roads warrants very close watch with the final decision on Congress’ transportation reauthorization bill likely to dictate how tolling initiatives play out in state legislatures across the country.
The Senate version would allow for widespread tolling on existing interstate highways, while the House version would allow new tolls only on newly built highway lanes. Under the House plan, use of those lanes would be optional to drivers, and the toll would be imposed only as long as necessary to pay for the new lanes’ construction.
Unable to agree on a new bill, the House and Senate voted in late September to pass an extension on current funding authority through May 31, 2005.
“We’ve witnessed a greater interest in constructing toll highways over the past two or three years,” Spencer said.
“Regardless what Congress does, those states that are interested in tolls will continue to explore those opportunities. Those states will certainly be encouraged, supported and lobbied heavily by the highway construction industry, who isn’t in the least concerned with where funds come from or whether those funds are actually created in any kind of an equitable or fair way.
“It’s not unreasonable to think we’ll see more emphasis on tolls in states that are looking at it now and likely others as well.”
Also of note
Other issues related to truckers that saw consideration before various state legislatures included an initiative in Vermont to restrict idling. The bill – S250 – barred any diesel-powered vehicle from idling for longer than three minutes when the temperature is above minus 10 degrees or 10 minutes when it’s colder than minus 10. Despite specifying that drivers idling their trucks while sleeping or resting would be exempt from the proposed rule, the bill died in committee.
In North Carolina, a plan to add truck drivers to the state’s workers’ compensation coverage also failed passage. H1370 called for classifying a truck driver as an employee or independent contractor and to be subject to workers’ compensation coverage. It would have included any interstate or intrastate driver.
Illinois’ governor signed a bill into law reducing the state’s current 36 percent surcharge on registration fees for trucks to 21.5 percent in 2005 and 14.35 percent in 2006. The new law, previously HB714, also applies the rolling stock exemption to vehicles over 16,000 pounds that are used in interstate commerce at least half of the time during the past year.
A failed effort in California would have required state-registered trucks to carry a device to enable police or carriers to stop the vehicles while in motion. AB575 would have required trucks carrying flammable materials to have some kind of external disconnect device to either activate the brakes or cut off the fuel to the engine.
Legislation to require every motor vehicle registered in New York manufactured after Dec. 31, 2004, to be equipped with an event data recorder remain active. The bills – S5398 and A5971 – have remained in committee since they were introduced early this year.
The Michigan House recently approved an item to allow longer trucks on state roads.
The bill, now before the Senate, would permit trucks 65 feet long, 6 feet longer than the current limit of 59 feet.
Lawmakers in Colorado, Hawaii, Louisiana and West Virginia brought up measures intended to keep slowpokes out of the left lane on multilane highways.
Colorado and Louisiana enacted their proposals. In Colorado, those who lag in the left lane could be ticketed and fined between $15 and $100 with no points off the driver’s license if they are blocking the flow of traffic.
Louisiana’s law targets motorists traveling in the left lane at the same speed or slower than vehicles in the right-hand lane. Violators could be fined as much as $175 and/or get up to 30 days in jail.