A trucking perspective of the Senate highway bill

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | Friday, March 16, 2012

Truckers not only influenced favorable language in the Senate transportation bill that passed this week, but they also helped keep some potentially harmful provisions out of the bill. OOIDA’s staff in Washington, DC, sheds light on what made it into the bill, what stayed out, and what truckers should pay attention to as the process moves forward.

First, what’s in the bill? At first glance the Senate bill, S1813, may appear to be just another extension of the status quo because funding levels remain more or less the same.

OOIDA Director of Legislative Affairs Ryan Bowley says that while funding levels are similar, there is enough “new” in the bill to qualify it as a big step toward reforms.

“This bill includes a lot of important reforms to the highway program that bring more dollars back to be spent on roads and bridges instead of on Washington-based discretionary programs,” Bowley said.

“The House and Senate versions both do this. They really tear down the program and build it back up.”

Bowley says the current structure holds pots of money in separate accounts and forces states to meet criteria to get access to the funds.

“This program breaks down some of those walls,” Bowley said.

Perhaps the best example of reform, Bowley said, is the inclusion of truck parking in a provision that many truckers know as “Jason’s Law.”

“In the past, there’s been a small discretionary grant program for truck parking, and states that wanted to participate had to come to Washington, basically on bended knee, and beg the DOT for the money to do a project,” Bowley said.

“What both bills do is say, we’re not going to have Washington driving that train, that this is going to be more open. This is a fantastic example of reform in the bill.”

As previously reported, the bill includes a study on cab crashworthiness for commercial vehicles, a study on detention time, and reform for brokers and freight forwarders. In addition, the bill addresses reincarnated motor carriers, requires a federal study on toll fairness, speeds up project delivery time, and establishes a federal highway freight program.

Truckers can take credit for many of those provisions, many of which appear in both the Senate and House versions.

Truckers can also take credit for some things that stayed out of the bill.

On that front, the Senate refrained from taking up truck sizes and weights despite a push from large shipper and carrier groups. OOIDA sensed victory on that issue when House lawmakers struck down increased size and weight provisions in their bill earlier this year.

Also staying out of the Senate bill was a push by safety groups and large carriers to make speed limiters mandatory on heavy trucks.

“There’s no speed limiters; that was a huge one,” OOIDA Director of Government Affairs Laura O’Neill told “Land Line Now” on Sirius XM. “Originally, when this thing first started, and we saw the draft many months ago, we went absolutely nuts because there was a speed-limiter mandate in there.”

“There’s nothing funky in there on tolls and public-private partnerships,” O’Neill further noted.

In fact, the bill takes away incentives for states and investors to privatize highways by disqualifying privatized roads from being considered for federal funding.

In addition, a pair of senators who offered competing amendments to change the rules of interstate tolls withdrew their amendments at the last minute.

Still work ahead
Despite the successes, truckers cannot afford to ease up as the transportation process moves forward.

The Senate bill still contains a federal mandate for electronic on-board recorders, something that OOIDA will continue to fight.

As OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer said earlier this week, the bill is not perfect and the process still has a long way to go before a new law is on the books.

The House has yet to vote on its transportation bill, HR7. Lawmakers will meet next week to decide their path forward.

Truckers can stay involved by being part of OOIDA’s Call to Action list and by keeping their lawmakers on speed dial.