More than money
Long-term transportation bills due any day now in House and Senate

By David Tanner, associate editor

Based on what Senate leaders are saying, a six-year federal transportation bill could cost $339 billion, which is far short of the $556 billion that President Obama is calling for.

As the debate continues, some lawmakers are hinting that six years is unattainable and that the next transportation authorization will more likely be two or three years in duration.

As of press time, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee was close to revealing its plan for surface transportation. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA, who chairs the committee, wants funding to remain at current levels but account for inflation.

By those numbers, transportation programs would get an average of $56.5 billion per year, which projects out to $339 billion over six years. Under a two-year scenario, transportation would get about $113 billion.

Earlier this year, a White House document outlined a full six-year reauthorization at an estimated $556 billion cost. That translates to about $92.7 billion per year.

Congress must reauthorize various programs every few years, including transportation. The surface transportation authorization, sometimes referred to as a “highway bill,” is sorely needed because the last bill, SAFETEA-LU, expired in 2009. Since then, Congress has strung along a series of short-term stopgap bills to keep federal transportation programs afloat.

OOIDA supports a long-term authorization that focuses on maintaining and expanding highway infrastructure. The Association will also be going to bat for professional drivers on policy issues that affect trucking.

According to the White House “draft,” the next highway bill promises to be big on policy, including driver enforcement. The 600-plus page White House document contains 66 pages specific to regulatory goals for trucking, much of it relating to expanding the authority of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Examples are numerous. According to the draft, the administration proposes to put the bite on “reincarnated carriers” that resurface under new names after being busted for non-compliance. The draft also calls for “Driver Safety Fitness Ratings.” This is not about physical fitness, it’s about drivers being assigned a safety score.

Keep in mind the White House document is just a draft, but it demonstrates where the administration’s priorities are.

Sen. Boxer said her committee could have a highway bill draft by July 4. Senate EPW Committee ranking Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma, and Sens. Max Baucus, D-MT, and David Vitter, R-LA, will also play a large role on the Senate side.

“It is no secret that the four of us represent very different political views, but we have found common ground in the belief that building highways, bridges, and transportation systems is an important responsibility of the federal government, in cooperation with state and local governments and the private sector,” the senators said in a joint statement.

In the House, the jurisdiction to draft an authorization bill falls to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

T&I Committee Chairman John Mica, R-FL, has held dozens of listening sessions on surface transportation this year, and OOIDA members provided testimony at several of the sessions.

Mica has his sights on cutting government spending and earmarks while promoting the role of the private sector in transportation. The T&I Committee’s ranking Democrat, Nick Rahall of West Virginia, is promoting a stronger federal role in transportation.

The next surface transportation bill promises to be as much about policy as it will be about funding. With the Obama administration focusing on things like livable communities, rail, a national infrastructure bank, and multimodal freight movement, it’s more important than ever for truckers to make their voices heard.

Throughout the process, OOIDA plans to track a host of provisions that could eventually become amendments to the larger bill, such as safe truck parking, a cross-border program, electronic on-board recorders and truck size and weight. LL