A bipartisan and bicameral agreement on a new highway bill-- which would maintain current federal transportation funding levels for 27 months—will likely be passed within days, according to several news reports as well as the Office of Rep. John L. Mica (R-FL), chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

This new bill would expire about a month before the 2014 Congressional mid-term elections.

Mica stated that if a majority of House and Senate conferees approve the conference report, then both bodies can be expected to take up the measure before the end of the week, so that the new bill may be passed prior to the expiration of the current extension of transportation funding on June 30th. 

The bill is emblematic of how compromise can move important legislation forward. To get it passed, each party gave up on key provisions it had pushed earlier in the legislative process.

Of key interest to trucking, a mandate calling for electronic onboard recorders (EOBRs) that was included in the Senate version but strongly opposed by House Republicans, remains in the conference version of the bill, according to an Associated Press (AP) report.

“Despite misinformation from a vocal minority, the conferees have set our industry on the path to even greater improvements in safety by requiring the Dept. of Transportation to mandate that truck drivers use electronic devices to record their compliance with the hours of service requirements,” said American Trucking Assn.’s president & CEO Gov. Bill Graves “This is a tremendous leap forward for trucking, which will bring our compliance systems into the 21st Century, leveling the playing field for our industry and lead to even fewer crashes on our nation’s highways.”

Along with the EOBR mandate, Graves said also “of particular importance” was the committee’s inclusion in the highway bill of several other initiatives advocated by  ATA:

·         Require DOT to conduct a field study of pending changes to the restart provisions in the hours-of-service regulations

·         Creation of a clearinghouse to track drug and alcohol test results

·         A study of crashworthiness standards for large trucks

·         Establishment of standards for systems to provide employers with timely notifications of drivers’ moving violations

·         Mandatory testing of  new carriers entering the industry to verify their knowledge of safety requirements

Other key compromises that helped shape the final bill reported by AP include:

·         House Republicans agreed to drop insistence that the Keystone XL oil pipeline be approved and to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating ash generated by coal-fired powerplants.

·         Senate agreed to House GOP demands that requirements for environmental impact studies of highway and transit projects be revised to cut the time it takes to complete projects. Republicans said that the 15 years on average it takes to complete a major project is too long-- the compromise aims to cut that time in half.

·         Language directing 80% of the Clean Water Act fines from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill to restoration of Gulf State communities hit by the disaster—with  Senate agreeing to  House GOP demand that $1.4 billion for general land and water conservation be cut from the measure.

According to a statement issued by Sen. Max Baucus, (D-MT) chair of the Finance Committee, the highway bill— which is paired with language preventing a hike in student-loan interest rates-- will be fully paid for and cost a total of $27.185 billion above current revenues.  

“The funding added to the Highway Trust Fund,” stated Baucus, “comes from a transfer from the Treasury’s General Fund.  The amount transferred from the General Fund is fully replenished through a provision stabilizing pension interest rates and a provision boosting Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation premiums, as well as other offsets.

“The agreement also averts an interest rate increase for the seven million students who will take out loans next year,” he continued. “The final package funding the highway bill and the student loan rate provision, which is fully paid for, will cost $27.185 billion.”

Chairman Mica stated that the conference report on the bill “focuses on unprecedented reforms by cutting red tape and consolidating federal transportation programs.” Henoted that, “unlike the last transportation bill, which contained over 6,300 earmarks, this bill doesn’t include any earmarks” and added that the new bill also does not increase taxes.

Mica touted the reforms in the bill, going so far as to call it the “jobs bill” of the 112th Congress. “This legislation is specifically designed to reform and consolidate our transportation programs, streamline the bureaucratic project process, and give states more flexibility to save taxpayers’ hard-earned money,” he stated.

Indicating strong bipartisan and bicameral support for the new highway ball, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Senate Environment Works and Public Works Committee, said in a statement that the agreement “provides stability and flexibility for the nation's transportation planners, invests in America's crumbling roads and bridges, and puts people back to work. I want to thank [her committee’s Ranking Member] Sen. James Inhofe [R-OK], Rep. John Mica, [Ranking Member of Mica’s committee] Rep. Nick Rahall [D-WV]and all the other conferees, and leadership in both the House and Senate for working virtually non-stop to finish this bill."