House version of highway bill demolishes Administration's budget.

The trucking industry inadvertently has found itself embroiled in what may be the defining moment of President Clinton's second term and a watershed event in U.S. fiscal policy.

Just before Congress left Washington, D.C., for spring recess last month, the House of Representatives passed its version of the highway bill, which is known officially as the Building Efficient Surface Transportation and Efficiency Act, or BESTEA. The six-year, $218-billion measure is the largest single public works bill ever passed by the House, and will exceed the President's budget even if bridges and other local demonstration projects, commonly known as pork barrel projects, are eliminated.

In contrast, the $214-billion Senate version of the bill is generally within the President's budget proposal, except for demonstration projects totaling about $18 billion. The House version busts the President's budget proposal for highway spending by $33 billion over coming years -- even without its demonstration projects, which total about $9 billion.

While some of these 1,500 projects are necessary to bolster the country's ailing infrastructure and offer value to a cross-section of transportation users, most are unnecessary and too locally oriented to be of widespread value. For example, $14 million is slated to purchase barges for a company that transports new cars to dealers in New York City. Another project gives $2.75 million to build an access road to a Dayton, Ohio, baseball stadium.

As far as the big picture is concerned, trucking has much to cheer about in the House legislation. For one thing, funding for highways alone is $181 billion, compared to $173 billion in the Senate bill. This is done, in part, by taking the Highway Trust Fund off-budget, which would free it for spending over coming years.

This is where the budget-busting aspects of the bill take place. The trucking industry has always supported taking the Trust Fund off-budget because its money comes from fuel taxes, which, they say, should be returned to fund highway initiatives. The bill also repeals the 12% tire tax after October 1, 2000. Other provisions allow for funding of NAFTA-corridor highways and building border-crossing infrastructures to help move traffic faster.

Interestingly, the House bill does not provide any money for replacing the deteriorating Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which crosses the Potomac River, not far from Capitol Hill. The Senate offered $900 million to replace the I-95 bridge, a linchpin in the Interstate system. Built in the 1930s to handle 100,000 vehicles daily, it now handles 172,000. Transportation engineers have testified before Congress that unless the bridge is replaced, weight restrictions might be imposed to protect it from collapsing by the year 2020, when traffic is expected to reach 270,000.

Highlights of the Senate bill include exemption of utility vehicle operators from hours-of-service restrictions during emergencies and protection against lawsuits for trucking companies that provide driver safety records to potential employers.

The Senate bill also addresses several hazardous-materials issues that the House version doesn't touch. For example, the Senate bill expands the Dept. of Transportation's (DOT's) authority to open and test haz-mat containers during transport, and allows officials to issue emergency orders without reasonable due-process protection. If passed, this provision probably will attract a constitutional challenge the first time it occurs.

On other safety issues, both bills give DOT the ability to issue exemptions from safety regulations for carriers deemed safe, and also increase pilot programs that lead to carriers being judged on safety performance instead of regulatory compliance. Both bills also address the issue of rest-area shortages, with the House specifically offering $500,000 for a three-year study on the problem. Plans to strengthen the commercial driver's license program are also offered in both bills.

The backdrop surrounding the highway bill has called attention to special interest legislation like no other bill in recent history. "I have never seen pork piled so high in years," says one Hill staffer. Indeed, House members pounced on the bill, adding as much as they thought they could get away with, according to other staffers. Not only that, but accounts in the news media have accused Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, of offering up to $15 million each in highway funds to critical Republicans in exchange for their vote. Several members turned down the offers, saying they couldn't be bought.

According to other published reports, Transportation lobbyist Ann Eppard, a former aide to Shuster, secured hundreds of millions of dollars worth of special provisions in the highway bill for clients. For example, documentary film producer Ken Mendell won $3 million to fund a movie about the need for increased infrastructure spending in the United States. Although Eppard is not charged with doing anything illegal in securing these provisions, critics charge she received them because of her close relationship with Shuster. Eppard was recently indicted by a Boston grand jury on unrelated corruption charges.

President Clinton has promised to veto the legislation if House and Senate conferees come up with a bill that exceeds his budget proposal. Whether the Administration has the votes to support a veto seems slim, however.

If Congress passes a highway bill that busts the President's budget, it could mean the end of Clinton's magic touch at congressional compromise. It could also mean the end of the promise of the first balanced budget in decades, an event with even greater consequences for the American economy and the trucking industry.

Data won't be compared with driver records

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is seeking companies willing to participate in a test using automatically generated satellite data in lieu of logbooks kept by drivers.

The test's goal is to see if satellite data can take the place of conventional logbooks in keeping the required hours-of-service records. FHWA officials say they welcome companies already using satellite-based tracking systems to join the program.

Many trucking firms have voiced interest in replacing logbooks with satellite data but are wary of the government comparing satellite data to driver-kept logs because of the inevitable discrepancies that would occur (FO -- 12/97, p. 10; 1/98, p.10).

Industry officials have voiced concern that the growth of satellite-tracking systems would be curtailed if the government insisted on comparing the two records. Bryan Price, transportation specialist at the Office of Motor Carriers (OMC), said this test intends to focus only on the viability of using satellite records and not compare the differences between the computer and man-made records.

OMC officials said they expect to sign an agreement with Werner Enterprises of Omaha, Neb., a firm that developed a satellite-based system to keep records required by the FHWA. The company has expressed interest in doing away with logbooks entirely and replacing them with satellite records.

Although the test program is voluntary, Dept. of Transportation (DOT) officials were able to include a provision in the House highway bill (see p. 8, this issue) that requires DOT to conduct such a two-year study. There is no such provision in the Senate version of the bill. OMC officials say, however, that even if the provision is not included in the final bill, the agency will still go ahead with the test program.

Environmental award A new award developed by ATA will honor people who develop innovative ways to help the environment. Called the Environmental Excellence in Trucking Award, the honor will recognize employees of ATA member companies. For more information, contact ATA at 703-838-1786.

Who's at fault? Motor carriers cannot be held strictly liable for drivers who exceed permitted driving hours or who submit false logs, according to a ruling last month by the U.S. Court of Appeals for Washington, D.C. That means that in enforcement actions, FHWA must prove fault or negligence against carrier management.

OSHA inspections In response to a federal court ruling that temporarily halted OSHA's cooperative compliance program, the agency announced it will go back to doing business the old-fashioned way -- surprise inspections of the workplace. Business groups attacked the voluntary compliance program on the grounds that it was coercive, arguing that failure to join the program guaranteed that a company would be inspected.

CDL privatization FHWA has proposed an 18-month pilot project allowing privatization of CDL knowledge testing, which must cover a driver's understanding of federal safety regulations and vehicle safety systems.

Do tell DOT's Research and Special Programs Administration has issued new rules for identification of hazardous materials in transportation. Changes include clarification and revision of requirements for displaying ID numbers for large-quantity haz-mat shipments, as well as those for nonbulk haz-mat packages that are poisonous by inhalation. New methods for marking the carrier's phone number on the exterior of the vehicle are also provided.