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Senate passes highway bill; pressure on House to act quickly

March 14, 2012
House must pass its bill next and then both will need to be reconciled

By a bipartisan vote of 74-22, the U.S. Senate today passed a two-year, $109 billion surface-transportation bill. Now it is up to Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH)to corral the GOP caucus in his chamber to pass their version of the legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said during his floor remarks that the upper chamber’s bill-- cosponsored by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Jim Inhofe (R-OK)--  will deal “with all aspects of helping our failing bridges--- there are 70,000 of those. We have 20% of our highways in non-safe condition. We have problems with our mass transportation system, rails, and other such things. So we have to move forward building this nation's infrastructure with this legislation alone. It will save or create 2.8-million jobs.

“This is an effort to build a world-class transportation system that was started during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower and every President since then has recognized the need to go forward with the vision that General Eisenhower had,” Reid added.

The current highway bill expires on March 31, which is putting extreme pressure on Speaker Boehner to push through the five-year $260-billion highway bill championed by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica, (R-FL).  Just a week ago, Mica stated that his bill had gained the support of the House Republican leadership and so “will continue to be the focus of efforts to pass a major transportation and energy jobs initiative through the House.”

 “House leaders and I agree that the five-year transportation measure approved by the Committee in February is the best option for a job-creating bill to improve our infrastructure,” Mica said at the time in an emailed statement. “During a meeting today with House Republicans, we had a productive discussion and outlined our hope to move forward with the Committee’s five-year bill with a few changes, including the financing of transit from the Highway Trust Fund.”

However, if the House highway bill passes soon in its current form, no one on Capitol Hill has yet spoken out on how given its larger scope and cost it will be reconciled with the Senate bill so that a single piece of legislation can be signed by President Obama—and before the end of this month.

News of the Senate bill passing was warmly greeted by trucking’s largest lobby, the American Trucking Assns. (ATA). ““The highway bill passed by the Senate is an example of how things should work in Washington,” said ATA president & CEO Gov. Graves said. “This bill advances the cause of highway safety and takes a number of important steps toward reforming our transportation system, two accomplishments that the committee chairmen and ranking members--  Senators Boxer, Inhofe, Baucus, Hatch, Rockefeller and Hutchison- - are to be commended for.

 “As representatives of the trucking industry, we’re particularly pleased to see this bill provide not just attention to – but $2 billion a year in funding for – highway freight-specific projects, reforms and consolidates redundant programs, speeds project approval; and steers clear of the tempting, but ill-advised use of tolls on existing Interstates,” he continued. “In particular, we’d like to thank Sen. Bingaman for his work to ensure that public-private partnerships protect the public interest, and that states do not get extra credit for selling off their transportation assets to the highest bidder.  We also appreciate Sen. Hutchison’s efforts to prevent the spread of tolls.

 Graves pointed out the Senate measure also includes several important highway-safety directives. He advised that: “It orders the creation of a clearinghouse for commercial drivers’ drug and alcohol test results; directs the federal government to create a notification system so employers can be told of drivers’ traffic infractions; moves us in the direction of establishing crashworthiness standards for large trucks; raises the bar new companies and drivers must clear before coming into the trucking industry; and orders the mandating of electronic logs for all commercial drivers.”

“Now that the Senate has completed its work,” Graves added, “I urge the House to pass its own bill and then quickly work with the Senate to send a bipartisan reform bill to the President, one which sets a new course based on the principles of promoting targeted, effective safety programs, and funding the most cost-beneficial transportation projects.”

Also applauding the Senate action was the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA). “We are grateful for the hard work and progress made toward finalizing a highway reauthorization,” said Todd Spencer, OOIDA executive vice president. “While not perfect, the passing of this bill represents an important step forward in reforming our surface transportation programs back to where they belong, which is to focus on maintaining and improving our roads and bridges.”

Spencer noted that the bill includes many important provisions that OOIDA regards as mostly beneficial to truckers, such as addressing the truck parking shortage, reforming freight brokerage rules, and studying heavy-duty truck cab crashworthiness standards.

“While there are still complications such as an EOBR mandate in this bill, we are relieved that a significant first step has been taken,” added Spencer.  “This bill has a long way to go before it gets to the president’s desk, and OOIDA will continue to fight against costly and unnecessary mandates.”

He pointed out that the bill includes an amendment put forth by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) that will prevent U.S. highway tax dollars from being diverted for privatized highways. “This is good news for small-business truckers and all highway users,” said Spencer. 

 “We look forward to a House passage of its version of the bill so that the needed changes can move forward,” Spencer added. “And, specifically, we would like to commend the hard work of Sen. Barbara Boxer. While we may not always agree, the ability to pass legislation of this size in the current political climate is admirable.”

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