In the last decade, Congress has failed to pass “a transportation bill that lasted longer than two years.” The nation’s Highway Trust Fund - the “way that federal highway and transit programs are funded for state, local, and national projects across the country” - relies on fuel taxes and is always on the verge of running out of money. This seems like a ridiculous way to legislate with the repair of our nation’s crumbling infrastructure and the public’s safety at stake.
Once again, Congress is faced with a transportation bill dilemma, as “[f]ederal infrastructure funding is currently scheduled to expire in Oct. 29.” And once again it’s caught up in the same old disagreements about whether to authorize a long-term solution with an expectation of funding without ruining other needed programs, or relying on short-term fixes because meaningful funding commitments are heresy among some congressional leaders. Here we go again.
The Senate has passed what they call the “Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy Act” or “(DRIVE) Act.” The House disagrees on funding specifics and has not yet passed a bill. Industry supports the multi-year Senate bill (as opposed to the short-term House bill). They note, “A six-year federal commitment to prioritize and invest in our aging infrastructure and safety needs is essential to … keep pace with growing demands.” Sounds so reasonable, except when you dig deeper into this thousand plus page bill, and realize that this isn’t just about investing in infrastructure and safety. In fact, in many ways, it’s the exact opposite of that. With all the talk about money and politics, few are paying attention to what the trucking industry (for one) has been up to these past few months – slipping into this bill so many anti-safety trucking provisions that it frankly would be better if no long-term bill passed at all. Here’s some of what this bill does:
- Reduces the interstate age requirements for large commercial truck drivers from 21 to 18 years old. This is a potential disaster. Statistics show that “drivers ages 18-20 are involved in 66 percent more fatal crashes than those above 21.”
- Increases truck driver fatigue. Late last year, Congress (in an appropriations bill) “temporarily suspended” DOT safety rules regulating truck driver fatigue pending further study. Specifically, it stayed “the ‘two-night off weekend’ for truck drivers.” This change is “the equivalent to adding an additional work day to the work week of a truck driver” which could now go as high as 82 hours, up front the current limit of 70 hours. Reinstatement of this rule is now unlikely under the DRIVE Act (or the accompanying 2016 Transportation Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Bill), which add new pro-industry hurdles before there can be any new rule making (See next bullet.) notably, trucker fatigue is exactly what led to the crash that badly injured comedian Tracy Morgan and killed a fellow passenger. We covered it here.
- Adds unnecessary rulemaking burdens before the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration can issue critical safety, and skews the rulemaking process in favor of the transportation industry. This means rules about hours of service, driver training, and safety monitoring will become much more difficult to promulgate. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) has pushed to strike this part of the bill, so far unsuccessfully.
- Requires FMCSA to remove safety data alerts, scores and rankings from public view. It prohibits any new safety information to be posted to the agency’s website until a “corrective action plan” is implemented to ensure data sufficiency.
And there’s more!
At the same time the anti-safety Drive Act is moving through Congress, the “2016 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) Appropriations” bill has become a vehicle for equally dangerous provisions. This summer, the full House as well as the Senate Appropriations Committee passed bills to permit increases in truck length, allowing the use of Double 33’s, or “or two 33-foot trailers to be pulled behind a single truck.” The bill would “preempt” or overturn laws in 39 states that currently prohibit Double 33’s. This provision is so misguided that even top executives at 15 major carriers say it “would have a negative impact on highway safety, accelerate wear and tear on the nation’s highway system, and make it very difficult for small trucking companies, which are the heart of our industry, to compete.”
Moreover, “the USDOT estimates that this amendment would cause between 1.8% and 2.7% increase in pavement maintenance costs and more than 2,500 bridges would require strengthening or replacement as a result of this amendment, potentially costing more than $1 billion.” Senators Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) are trying to, at least, permit DOT to evaluate the safety implications before allowing such a law but so far, there’s no indication that will pass.
And these safety roll-backs aren’t coming at a good time. Howard Abramson, a former executive at American Trucking Associations, explains, “All of these concessions to the trucking industry have gained traction in Congress even though the industry has consistently resisted safety improvements” while the death toll for “ truck-involved crashes” keeps going up.