Sen. Pryor talks trucking with secretary of transportation nominee

| 9/21/2006

There was little talk about trucking-related issues in the confirmation hearing of Mary Peters – until Arkansas Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor had his turn to ask a few questions.

Peters is the Bush administration’s nominee for secretary of transportation. Her confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation was held Wednesday.

In her opening remarks, Peters mentioned issues such as the aging infrastructure and congestion, as well as safety and security. Trucking-specific issues were noticeably absent.

Senators on the committee each had five minutes to either simply make a statement or ask Peters specific questions on different issues. Many members of the committee focused on Amtrak, railroads and the aviation system – again with no mention of trucking.

But in his five minutes, Pryor asked some very pointed questions on a couple of hot-button issues within the trucking industry.

“Let me ask a couple of questions about trucking security,” Pryor said. “The FMCSA is considering a pilot program to allow some long-haul Mexico-domiciled motor carriers to operate throughout the United States. Do you know anything about that?”

“I have also heard that same thing and I have asked the question and there are no immediate plans,” Peters said.

Despite the fact there are “no immediate plans,” Pryor explained to Peters there are a number of concerns about such a pilot program.

For starters, he wanted to know what statutory authority DOT has in implementing such a program. Peters said she was unsure.

He impressed upon Peters several other questions that need to be answered before moving forward with a pilot program to allow Mexican carriers operating authority within the U.S.

“Is there some sort of agreement with Mexico to allow U.S. safety inspectors and auditors to look at the trucks?” he asked. “Do they have to meet the same requirements that U.S. domiciled carriers have to meet? Would they have to pay the same fees – the various registrations and fuel taxes, those sort of things? Would they have to do the International Registration Plan and the International Fuel Tax Agreement?”

Pryor moved directly on to a second hot-button issues with truckers – road funding.

In her latest stint at the federal level, serving in the role as administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, Peters advocated interstate tolling and public-private partnerships.

And, even more recently, she was noted as saying the federal government must find creative alternatives to the highway funding issue.

“I read where you said we can’t depend on the federal government to bring the money in that was around when the interstate system was first built. What does that mean … that sounds like toll roads to me?” Pryor said.

Peters explained her belief that the government needs to look into innovative, diverse funding to maintain the interstates because the gas tax that was initiated to pay for the interstate system probably won’t be enough in the future.

“Would that include toll roads?” Pryor asked.

“It could very well sir, yes,” Peters responded.

“Would that include toll roads on existing highways or just on new construction?” Pryor asked.

Peters said that currently the focus by the federal government is to add toll roads only to new or improved construction. As far as adding toll roads to existing roadways, Peters said that is a decision better made by state and local governments.

However, she said it is the federal government’s responsibility to make sure the interstate system serves the needs of all Americans and facilitates commerce.

Later in the hearing, Committee Chairman Sen. Ted Stevens, R-AK, brought up another very contentious topic – a national speed limit.

“We have an increasing number of fatalities on our highways. I think if it doesn’t stop, if we can’t reverse it any other way, we are going to have to restore the speed limits on interstate highways,” Stevens said. “I would hope we have a chance to work with you on that, particularly with regard to the fatalities on our state highways.”

“Mr. Chairman, you have my commitment to do so. There is no higher priority in this DOT than reducing the amount of deaths and injuries that occur on our nation’s highways every year,” she said.

The Committee members are expected to recommend to the full Senate that Peters be appointed secretary of transportation.

– By Jami Jones, senior editor