Highway Bill at last

When the legendary speaker of the House Tip O'Neil said that all politics are local, he could have been talking about the recent highway appropriations bill the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). Congress packed more pork into this piece of legislation than ever before 6,376 special projects worth $24 billion which means fewer dollars

When the legendary speaker of the House Tip O'Neil said that all politics are local, he could have been talking about the recent highway appropriations bill — the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). Congress packed more pork into this piece of legislation than ever before — 6,376 special projects worth $24 billion — which means fewer dollars for road building that would really make a difference to fleets.

“This bill is just the latest in last-minute pieces of pork-laden legislation that Congress has passed before summer recess,” says Tom Schatz, president of the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste. “It's a fiscal car wreck.”

To be sure, not all the money for what's politely called ‘earmarked’ projects is wasteful — like widening interstate highways and bridge repairs — but many are patently provincial, with little regard for a deteriorating national highway system.

One of the most glaring examples is the $941 million allocated to Alaska, including a $3-million documentary on the state's infrastructure; $231 million for a bridge named for Alaska's Republican Congressman Don Young, chairman of the House Transportation Committee; and $223 million for a bridge to connect Ketchikan (population 8,000) and Gravina Island (population 50), which replaces a seven-minute ferry ride.

Some other pork projects include $2.5 million for aesthetic lighting along the Ronald Reagan Freeway in California, $7.2 million for snowmobile trails in Vermont, and $1.5 million to upgrade the interpretative center at Virginia's Blue Ridge Music Center. “These projects on their own have merit,” says one lobbyist, “but they don't belong in a highway bill. Highway appropriations should be for highways.”

While trucking will be hurt by the worsening condition of roads, inadequately addressed by lawmakers, the $286.5 billion appropriation over six years contains some bright spots for the industry. It calls for the owners of intermodal chassis to be responsible for their conditions, resulting in financial and safety benefits for carriers. The act also directs the Transportation Security Administration to develop a system that notifies carriers if a driver fails to meet hazmat endorsement criteria. And all Canadian and Mexican drivers operating in the U.S. must meet the same hazmat criteria as U.S. drivers.

In an attempt to increase the driver pool, the new highway bill allows diabetic drivers who take insulin to apply for CDLs. The bill also provides $5 million from 2006 through 2009 for general driver training programs.

Other provisions allow additional money for traffic enforcement from the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program, and set in stone agricultural-driver exemptions from hours-of-service rules. However, the bill does not codify HOS rules for all drivers. “We remain concerned that Congress' inaction on hours-of-service will negatively impact overall highway safety and force the revision of a rule that took eight years to write and is successfully serving its intended purpose,” says ATA president Bill Graves.

The issue of tolls is more problematic for trucking. Congress let stand existing pilot projects and left the door ajar for additional pilot projects that place tolls on existing interstate highways, provided that, among other criteria, they offer variable pricing to help congestion. Some of these roads could be privatized in the process. Industry officials have voiced concern that as the number of pilot projects grows, they could turn into full-fledged projects. “This opens the door,” says Darren Roth, director of highway operations at ATA.

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