With a news conference late yesterday, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, chaired by Rep. John L. Mica (R-FL), started to get down to business on the House version of a long-overdue comprehensive highway bill. According to Mica, the Committee is taking up “a long-term reauthorization and reform of federal surface transportation programs” as a key component of the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act, which is being pushed by the House’s Republican leadership.

The bill is replete with extensive reform measures, many aimed at cutting red tape, but its provisions calling for reforms of truck size and weight limits on Interstate highways will no doubt prove the biggest political footballs in the bag.

The legislation is regarded by the Committee as the largest transportation reform bill since the Interstate Highway System was created in 1956. And, the Committee stressed, the legislation will contain no earmarks—whereas the previous surface transportation law contained over 6,300 earmarks.

There is a competing Senate highway/infrastructure bill in the works as well. But where the House bill would spend $260 billion over five years, the Senate measure would spend $109 billion over just two years. That discrepancy alone will make it difficult to ultimately produce a single bill for President Obama’s signature.

The House Transportation Committee markup of The American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act will get under way tomorrow at 9 a.m. A live webcast of the proceedings will be accessible at transportation.house.gov.

According to a summary of the Republican House effort, the transportation reauthorization proposal will “combine expansion of American energy production with a jobs-focused initiative to help build our nation’s infrastructure and reform and streamline the project approval process. Revenues from expanded oil and gas drilling will help finance a long-term transportation bill. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s proposal supports sustained economic growth and job creation by cutting red tape, advancing private-sector job creation through streamlining the process, reforming Federal programs, and better leveraging existing resources.”

Top reforms noted in the proposal by the Committee include:

• Consolidate or eliminate nearly 70 programs by consolidating duplicative programs and eliminating programs that do not serve a federal purpose.

• Eliminate mandates that states spend highway funding on non-highway activities.

• Provide states greater flexibility to fund their most critical infrastructure needs and priorities.

• Cut red tape by allowing federal agencies to review transportation projects concurrently.

• Delegate more project approval authority from federal agencies to state agencies.

• Eliminate bureaucratic delay by setting and enforcing hard deadlines for decisions on permits and project approvals.

• Accelerate reviews and permits for replacement projects and projects in the existing right-of-way.

• Leverage existing federal resources and adopts reform policies to incentivize the private sector to invest in transportation infrastructure.

• Expand federal financing options for major surface projects by expanding the TIFIA program and aids in leveraging federal funding through state infrastructure banks.

But a full reading of the proposed legislation reveals key elements of change specific to improving truck safety in a variety of ways and revisiting the driver hours-of- service (HOS) rules as well as a push to enhance vehicle productivity via liberalizing truck weight limits and letting double- and triple-trailer trucks travel over longer distances than currently allowed.

Continue reading "House highway bill includes truck size, weight reforms"

Indeed, the most contentious of these provisions is truck weight. According to the shipper advocacy group Coalition for Transportation Productivity (CTP), the bill contains a ”carefully crafted truck weight reform proposal” that calls for allowing states to opt into a higher federal (Interstate) vehicle weight limit for single-trailer trucks equipped with six axles rather than the typical five. “The required sixth axle maintains all braking and handling characteristics at the new limit of 97,000 lbs—enabling shippers to safely utilize truck space that remains empty at the current 80,000-lb federal weight limit,” noted CTP. “This proposal will reduce the truckloads, fuel and vehicle miles necessary to meet demand. Further, participating states will have full authority to exclude these trucks from operating on any route or bridge.”

“The American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act recognizes that states need the ability to create safer, greener, more efficient shipping on their Interstate highways,” said CTP executive director John Runyan. “Truck capacity has dropped by 16% since the recession started, and the 30-year-old federal vehicle weight limit compounds the problem by forcing many trucks to travel when they are only partially full. Now is the time to correct this inefficiency and help American shippers and manufacturers invest more funds in growth and job creation.”

CTP noted that the truck-weight proposal is based on federal legislation known as the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act (SETA). That bipartisan bill was first introduced in the House by Reps. Michael Michaud (D-ME) and Jean Schmidt (R-OH) as H.R. 763. Identical companion legislation, S. 747, was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Mike Crapo (R-ID), Herb Kohl (D-WI), Susan Collins (R-ME) and Rob Portman (R-OH).

Also applauding the weight-reform proposal is the American Trucking Assns. (ATA). “We’re pleased that for the first time in 30 years, despite unfounded, yet curiously well-funded, attacks on the safety of our industry the House appears set to make much-needed reforms to federal truck size and weight,” ATA chairman Dan England, chairman of C.R. England Inc., said. “Allowing states to choose to open their Interstate highways to more productive trucks is an important step to reducing costs to American consumers and reducing congestion on our highways.”

Not buying that argument is the Owner Operator Independent Driver Assn. (OOIDA), which contended that in many situations the proposed change in truck limits will require a small-business trucker to spend up to $100,000 on new equipment. In addition, said Todd Spencer, OOIDA executive vice president, “Truck drivers know firsthand that heavier and longer trucks are much harder to maneuver and put additional stress on our already deteriorating highways and bridges.”

And not surprisingly, per a report posted today by Progressive Railroad.com, the Assn. of American Railroads (AAR) will fight the truck weight-and-size reforms. ““Americans don’t want 97,000-lb. trucks or huge multi-trailers up to 120 ft. long on our nation’s highways,” said AAR president & CEO Ed Hamberger in a prepared statement. “Nor is it fair that even more of the public’s tax dollars will be used to pay for the road and bridge damage inflicted by massive trucks.”