Countdown set for '97

A full range of issues fuels legislative agenda.With the election over and the congressional balance of power staying about the same, the work of running the country continues with a renewed pace. As always happens in an election year, some issues were deferred while politicians spent time on the process of getting re-elected. Now it's back to work for everyone.Several transportation issues were among

A full range of issues fuels legislative agenda.

With the election over and the congressional balance of power staying about the same, the work of running the country continues with a renewed pace. As always happens in an election year, some issues were deferred while politicians spent time on the process of getting re-elected. Now it's back to work for everyone.

Several transportation issues were among those given short shrift last year:

NAFTA. Of those matters cast aside, the most important was NAFTA's truck provisions. The implementation of many of the trucking-related parts of the North American Free Trade Agreement in December 1995 was abruptly halted because of concerns about safety. At least that was the official reason.

The issue of the differences in driver training and experience, and substance testing among drivers in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico was of concern at first, but the real stumbling block was opposition to NAFTA by labor unions and others who didn't see an economic benefit to the treaty. Politicians were perfectly willing to defer NAFTA so as not to antagonize these parties, but the Administration, now a lame-duck entity, is expected to be out there front and center with its NAFTA initiatives.

ISTEA II. Although NAFTA will grab the headlines, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) may have a far greater long-term effect on trucking.

ISTEA I expires in September, and Congress has already taken steps to make sure that it doesn't disappear without a suitable replacement (ISTEA II) to keep the ball rolling. The most important issue within ISTEA II is funding the National Highway System. This matter will attract the most attention from lawmakers, who will use the highway trust fund as a platform to tout their overall beliefs on the budget deficit.

Another reason to watch ISTEA II activities closely is that it may be used as a ploy to advance, retard, or alter single issues that are traditionally handled by regulatory agencies instead of Congress. We may see bits and pieces of issues such as hours of service, truck weights and lengths, driver training programs, and other matters inside ISTEA II.

Hours of service. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will be undertaking the most extensive and far-reaching rewrite of the hours-of-service regulations since these rules were implemented more than 50 years ago.

Instead of writing rules and soliciting comments, the FHWA is going into the matter with an open mind. It has already collected piles of data on fatigue and human performance and is asking for more. The agency will not propose rules until it is sure it has every scrap of relevant material it can collect. In doing so, FHWA officials promise to cast aside opinions, anecdotes, and conjecture and rely instead on hard evidence. The agency will be closely watched to see if it can propose rules based solely on objective analysis -- not lobbying efforts by special interest groups.

The FHWA also promises that its review will lead to performance-based regulations.

Unified motor carrier registration. This issue is making slow but steady progress. The goal is to have one-stop shopping for fleets when it comes to matters such as fleet registration, commercial driver's licenses, safety compliance, insurance, taxes, and fees.

What's fueling this move is not only the demand by motor carriers for less paperwork, but the technical ability of government to perform such services through advanced computer and network systems. But let's not forget the true incentive for such a program: a single registration system was mandated by the ICC Termination Act.

One of the main bugaboos yet to be dealt with is states' rights. For the system to work as carriers would like, states must be preempted from piling on their own regulations.

While these are the four biggest issues facing the trucking industry, there are others. The Hazardous Materials Act is up for re-authorization; the Environmental Protection Agency's plan to halve the amount of nitrogen oxides from stacks by 2004 is proceeding; and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is continuing to study and develop rules to prevent repetitive motion injuries. And, in the wake of a federal study showing that new drivers are poorly trained, mandatory driver training may come to the forefront.

It's going to be a busy year.

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