U. S. Senate Passes Transportation Bill – Part 2

Following is the continuation of our 3/20/2012 post regarding the transportation bill passed by the Senate last week.  Find the full story on the Transport Topics website.

Safety measures included in the legislation are a clearinghouse that would allow employers to check truck drivers’ drug and alcohol test results.

The bill also would create crashworthiness standards for large trucks and would require drivers and others entering the industry to be tested on trucking knowledge.

The bill also would let states spend federal highway funds on safe parking areas for resting truck drivers.

The House has yet to pass a bill of its own.

The Senate bill was crafted by four senators: Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee; James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the committee’s highest-ranking Republican; David Vitter (R-La.), ranking Republican on the committee’s Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee; and Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of that subcommittee and of the Finance Committee.

“It is a great day when the Senate, in an overwhelmingly bipartisan way, votes to save 1.8 million jobs and create up to 1 million more jobs,” Boxer said following the vote.

Inhofe said that “with the momentum of today’s victory, I look forward to moving this bill to conference so that we can get it to the president’s desk as soon as possible.”

From the start, Boxer and Inhofe said that to win support, a reauthorization bill could not address such controversial issues as high-speed rail and bigger trucks. They also agreed to keep spending at current levels plus inflation, with no new taxes.

However, with fuel tax revenue dwindling in recent years, the Highway Trust Fund has not been covering transportation expenditures. General fund money has been needed and about $12 billion in additional funds had to be identified to underwrite the Boxer-Inhofe bill.

Finance Chairman Baucus used a series of small changes to produce the $12 billion — for example, persuading committee members to dedicate to transportation the federal fines collected for leaking underground fuel tanks. Committee members also ended a tax credit that paper and pulp manufacturers received for producing “black liquor,” an alternative fuel.

In addition to highway spending of almost $85 billion, the Senate bill would authorize $2 billion over two years for low-interest loans to state and local governments building transportation projects.

FHWA would receive $480 million in each of the two years, but dozens of highway programs, among them the ferry boat and scenic byways programs, would be abolished or consolidated.

The 30-month wait for a new reauthorization law has caused such uncertainty that, despite disagreements on certain provisions, transportation advocacy groups were quick to applaud the Senate vote.

“While there are still complications such as an EOBR mandate in this bill, we are relieved that a significant first step has been taken,” said Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

With the Senate vote completed, several groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National League of Cities and the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, called on the House to act.

In contrast with the Senate, House Republicans are sharply divided on reauthorization.

To pay for a five-year bill introduced by House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), Republican leaders want to expand oil drilling offshore and in Alaska, proposals that have drawn objections from environmentalists.

One version of the House bill would have ended funding for public transit, which caused some suburban Republicans to withdraw support (2-20, p. 5). Conservative members want to keep spending and Highway Trust Fund revenue equal, which would mean transportation cuts of up to 35%.

In a March 15 press conference, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said that Republicans may not be able to agree on a bill, which could lead him to ask for a vote on the Senate’s bill.

However, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel last week told Transport Topics: “We are all working together toward co-alescing around a longer-term approach with needed reforms. If we can’t get there, we may have to take up something like the Senate bill — but we’d prefer to take the responsible approach on this and get a longer-term bill through the House.”

Mica spokesman Justin Harclerode said Mica believes that passing his long-term bill “with several likely changes, is the responsible approach, and we are continuing to work with House leaders and other members toward this objective. There is positive movement on this front.”

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