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Congress reaches new agreement on national transportation bill

By John D. Schulz, Contributing Editor and Jeff Berman, Group News Editor
July 02, 2012

Following a 30-month stretch in which funding for the nation’s transportation projects was kept intact by a series of 9 consecutive extensions, following the September 2009 expiration of Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), Congress last month finally came to terms on a new bill, which will keep funding at current levels through the end of Fiscal Year 2014.

The House approved the bill, which adopts the name of the Senate’s version, MAP-21 (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century), by a 373-52 margin, and the Senate signed on with a 74-19 vote. The bill was awaiting President Barack Obama’s signature for it to be signed into law at press time.

The conference agreement on a two-year, $105 billion transportation bill, which was reached in late June, followed weeks of acrimonious negotiations between the House and Senate, which suggested that talks would not advance to that level and that a tenth continuing resolution—to keep funding at current levels—would be introduced prior to the current one expiring at the end of June.

Earlier this year, the Senate EPW Committee passed a two-year, $109 billion bill, while the House’s efforts stalled out.

There are various parts of MAP-21 which stand to have a direct impact on freight transportation, logistics, and supply chain stakeholders. Some of these components—cited in a copy of the conference report obtained by LM— include:
-funding for the federal-aid highway program through fiscal 2014 at current funding levels with a small inflationary adjustment;
-the development of a National Freight Strategic Plan which encourages state freight plans and advisory committees, and provides incentives for states that fund projects to improve freight movement, focusing on reducing congestion, increasing productivity, improving the safety, security and resilience of freight transportation;
-a provision in which Congress should fully expend each year all revenues collected in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for the operation and maintenance of the nation’s federally maintained ports;
-regulations requiring electronic logging devices for recording hour of service in commercial motor vehicles with basic performance standards for the device;
-an HOS field study to expand on an FMCSA report on driver fatigue and maximum driving time requirements focusing on the 34-hour restart rule;
-provisions directing the Secretary of Transportation to study the effects of truck, size and weight on highway safety and infrastructure;
-direct the Secretary of Transportation, in collaboration with stakeholders, to develop a long-range national rail plan, among others.

A noted freight advocate told LM this bill is good news for supply chain stakeholders.

“It does have more in it for freight than we were fearful would be,” said Leslie Blakey, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors. “Overall, we are pleasantly surprised.”

In addressing the freight policy components of the bill, Blakey said that, while not perfect, it does at least acknowledge the importance of freight as part of the country’s transportation system. The national freight plan and strategy language in the bill, she said, goes in the right direction, although she said a state-based approach is not ideal, especially compared to the more efficient nature of doing this at more of a national level.

Douglas W. Stotlar, president and CEO of $5.3 billion Con-way Inc., said passage of the highway bill is a major positive.

“I am glad we got a bill,” he said, but added he was disappointed there was no language in it to provide greater productivity for trucking companies. Instead, Congress approved a study on some productivity issues that Stotlar said was the equivalent of kicking the can down the road. “A study in Congress-speak means no,” he said.
 
But he was encouraged that the bill contains language requiring electronic onboard recorders (EOBRs) to help snare hours of service violators.
 
“If they do it right, fleets will benefit much more from EOBRs than the investment,” he said.
 
If a bill is approved by Congress, it would be funded by the federal gasoline tax. But that could prove to be challenging.

The Highway Trust Fund, which is primarily comprised of gasoline tax revenue, collected $36.9 billion in taxes and interest in 2011, while it sent out $44.3 billion in payments, according to Congressional Budget Office figures. Some $36.7 billion went to highways and $7.6 billion to mass transit.
 
The balance of the trust fund was expected to be $5.5 billion by Sept. 30, the end of fiscal year 2012, compared with $14.3 billion in 2011, according to a March CBO estimate.

The main funding mechanism is the federal tax on motor fuels—18.4 cents on gasoline, 23.4 cents on diesel—which has been unchanged since 1993. There is no appetite on either side of the aisle to raise those taxes in an election year.

About the Author

John D. Schulz, Contributing Editor and Jeff Berman, Group News Editor

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