Federal Update
And they’re off
House begins work on next highway bill, despite call from Obama to delay

By Jami Jones
senior editor


The working draft of the next highway bill is a six-year plan packed with the potential to bring about long-term changes not only to the infrastructure system as we know it, but to the regulation of the trucking industry as well.

Rep. James Oberstar, D-MN, unveiled his 775-page working draft copy of the next highway bill in late June. Despite calls from the Obama administration to simply extend SAFETEA-LU – the current highway legislation – for 18 months, the Highways and Transit Subcommittee of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee wasted no time in rolling up their sleeves and going to work.

Oberstar crafted a bill that seeks to change the delivery of goods and people dramatically. He has taken the intermodal concept of moving freight and essentially developed a plan to implement expanded intermodal movement of people, too.

The main objective of Oberstar’s “intermodalism” plan is to streamline the movement of goods and people using all forms of transportation. This will get more personal and commercial vehicles off the roads, reducing congestion and demands on the highway system.

The bill does not mark one particular transportation sector – like trucks – for elimination. It’s a funding program that encourages efficient use of all modes of transportation.

The highway bill isn’t all about funding. It also typically packs numerous Congressional regulatory directives – especially for the trucking industry – and this bill is no exception.

The bill calls for electronic on-board recorders to be installed on all trucks within four years of the bill’s effective date, if it’s passed.

It also seeks to create a government-run “clearinghouse,” or database, of truck drivers’ drug test results. Along with creating a database of results, the bill would require employers to report drug testing results to that database.

Medical examiners would also have to meet various qualifications in order to be listed on the National Registry of Medical Examiners.

There is also language that addresses driver training, new entrant reviews and plans to address the “bad actors” – companies with dismal safety records that close up shop under one name and simply open back up under another.

It isn’t just trucking that Oberstar’s working draft of the bill attempts to get tough on. With an overarching theme of improving highway safety, the bill mandates that states get tough on non-commercial drivers as well.

The bill calls for the state driver’s license systems to report to a national database – an attempt to prevent people with suspended licenses getting a license in another state.

The bill also seeks to mandate that states require the use of ignition interlock devices on “first-time driving while intoxicated” offenders. Mandatory primary seat belt laws and helmet laws are also on the agenda again.

The working draft of the bill is a leaping-off point for what happens next with the highway bill. It’s full of blanks to be filled in. Amendments will be added, and proposed language could be altered or even killed all together.

In its debut before the Highway and Transit Subcommittee, several amendments were offered and withdrawn – basically showing that this bill will not be rubber-stamped into approval by the House.

It now moves to the full Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for another round of debate and eventually on to the House floor. It is Oberstar’s plan to push a highway bill through the House of Representatives by this fall.

However, in order for any highway bill to make it into law, the Senate must also approve some version of one, and the two chambers of Congress must agree on a single version, which the president would then be asked to sign.

Senators have already gone on record agreeing that an 18-month extension of the current legislation may be the way to go – which could set the stage for some pretty interesting fireworks between the two chambers of Congress. LL