House transportation hearing: 'It's time to kill the skunk'

By David Tanner, Land Line senior editor | 2/11/2015

Every once in a while a congressional committee nails it on matters that are important to professional truckers. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee did just that on Wednesday, Feb. 11, when it presented DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx with three hours of questions and concerns about CSA, hours of service, driver training, and more.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., opened his first hearing in the new Congress – on the need for a new surface transportation bill – and for the next three hours more than 30 committee members got a turn to raise issues about funding, policies and highway safety.

Foxx was unshaken even by the tough questions flying, such as why the DOT changed truckers’ hours-of-service rules in 2013, and why the DOT continues to defend the Comprehensive, Safety, Accountability (CSA) program and a cross-border trucking program with Mexico despite substantial reporting that those programs are missing the mark.

The hearing kicked off with discussions of highway funding and deficient bridges, and the need for Congress to get at least a temporary fix in place for the Highway Trust Fund by May 31. Most lawmakers and Foxx discussed the need to fund infrastructure on a multiyear basis.

Foxx promoted President Obama’s six-year, $478 billion proposal for surface transportation, saying that the next 30 years could see a 60 percent increase in truck traffic and 70 million more Americans on the transportation grid than at the present time.

“We’re going to find that many of our freight networks across the country that are congested today are likely to get more congested unless there is some relief,” Foxx said.

The DOT has put together a task force to come up with solutions for a national freight strategic plan, and OOIDA Senior Member Terry Button has been a member of that task force.

Funding methods for transportation – not just freight – will take center stage for the foreseeable future on Capitol Hill. President Obama’s plan calls for tax reforms to pay for transportation, but Foxx said the White House remains “all ears” for other ideas from Congress.

The committee’s ranking member, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., raised an issue about the U.S. cross-border trucking pilot program with Mexico.

“There isn’t much of a regulatory agency on their side, enforcement, etc., and it’s my understanding that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has submitted comments to Mexico about their concerns,” DeFazio said, asking Foxx to supply a copy of those comments to the committee. Foxx said he would respond in writing to the congressman but went no further on the issue.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., discussed the need for mandatory driver training for entry-level truck drivers. She asked about the timeframe of a negotiated rulemaking designed to bring about a regulation on training.

“We hope to complete our work on this within the calendar year,” Foxx said. “This has also been a long and tortured issue with a lot of false starts in the past. But we think a negotiated rulemaking is the fastest way to get there with the parties at the table.”

The negotiated rulemaking committee will have its first meeting in late February. OOIDA Director of Regulatory Affairs Scott Grenerth is a member of the committee.

Next up was the 2013 change to truckers’ hours of service, and the back-and-forth between FMCSA, Congress and truckers.

Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y., asked why the changes were implemented prior to the results of a study being made available to the agency. Foxx’s response drew additional comments.

“There is science about human tolerance, circadian rhythms, that gets into a lot of scientific stuff about how much of a tolerance an individual has,” Foxx said. “We’ve used that science in aviation. We have used it in just about every mode of transportation, and this hours-of-service rule was our first foray into trucking.”

“Knowing the study was never completed and yet it was implemented in August a year ago doesn’t prove that they were interested in science,” Hanna said. “Actually, it proves that they were on a mission to have this rule implemented. It seems very arbitrary and capricious.”

Foxx, in response, said: “We don’t make a habit of making rules without completed studies, but I will take your point – the point being that our goal is to maximize the amount of transparency and input from a variety of stakeholders … so that when we land on a rule, folks feel like they have been heard and they actually have been heard.”

Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., discussed a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that pointed out deficiencies in the FMCSA’s CSA program that scores the safety ratings of motor carriers.

“One of the major problems pointed out by GAO was that CSA uses data from a significant number of violations that have no causal connection to crashes or predictive ability,” Barletta said. … “If CSA is truly meant to address safety problems before crashes occur, shouldn’t scores especially if they are available to the public be based upon violations of regulations that have causal connection to crashes?”

Foxx said the DOT fully reviewed the GAO report and has strong disagreements with it. He said he would “flesh those out” in writing to the congressman at a later time.

Barletta made a point about heavier truck weights, which is always a discussion on Capitol Hill. He asked that the DOT look into studying the effects of heavier truck weights on local and state roads, not just on federal highways and interstates.

Rep. Janice Hahn, D-Calif., discussed the need for a national freight policy that includes the nation’s ports, and also the inland miles that trucks will be traveling to and from the ports.

She said she will soon introduce a bill that would deposit 5 percent of fees already collected on imports to create a dedicated freight mobility trust fund. Money would be used to improve infrastructure to open up corridors to and from the ports.

“The greatest threat to the diversion of cargo is our land-side congestion,” she said. “We’ve got to get it moved from point A to point B.”

Foxx said President Obama’s transportation plan calls for $28 billion over 6 years focused on freight mobility but was not specific in favoring any one mode of transportation.

Perhaps the most entertaining exchange of the hearing – and one that saw a live accompanying Twitter feed “blow up” for a few moments – featured comments from a former committee chairman, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

“We’re all like a bunch of dogs circling around a skunk right now,” Young said. “That skunk is how we’re going to fund this program, Mr. Foxx. This is our biggest challenge.”

Young said Congress cannot rely on the General Fund, or borrow money from overseas to pay for a highway bill. Hearings are good, he said, but lawmakers need to step up and make the tough decisions.

“I just want everybody to consider that – kill the skunk. Let’s fund this program, because if you don’t, we’re all in deep doo-doo.”

Lastly on the funding issue, Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., reiterated what other lawmakers were saying – that they prefer a multiyear highway bill to short-term patches. He said 285 House lawmakers have signed on to a letter supporting a long-term, multiyear highway bill.

In response, Foxx said, “Go big.”

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