The U.S. Senate yesterday passed a $295 billion highway bill with a vote of 89 to 11, putting Congress on a collision course with President George W. Bush, who said he would veto any bill that exceeds the $284 billion House version. The current highway bill, which has been extended six times, is set to expire on May 31.

To trucking, perhaps the most significant element in the Senate legislation is the Hutchinson-Nelson amendment, which would limit tolls on existing Interstate lanes, with the exception of an existing I-81 pilot project in Virginia.

“The Senate bill would actually allow for greater tolling than the House bill on the Interstate system— but on new lanes only,” Darrin Roth, ATA director of highway operations, told Fleet Owner. “The House version allows for limited tolling on both new lanes and existing lanes while the Senate bill opens opportunities for states to toll new lanes. The vast majority of toll projects and proposals fit under the Senate language by adding new capacity with tolls [to fund it].”

Indeed, the Hutchinson-Nelson amendment represents a victory for American Trucking Assns. and trucking groups that had lobbied hard to get such an initiative passed. But it’s unclear whether the measure will stick. The House and Senate will meet to negotiate the differences between their versions-- which includes the language on tolls—to come up with a final bill to send to the White House.

A provision requiring trucking customers to pay mandatory fuel surcharges passed the House, but not the Senate—leaving the issue to be another hot button for trucking until House and Senate reaches a resolution.

Efforts by the trucking interests and transportation officials to write into law the current hours-of-service rules have yielded no fruit in either the House or Senate versions of the bill.

The American Trucking Assns. (ATA) noted that the Senate bill would create a $20 million grant program for training entry-level truck drivers, as well as:

  • replacement of the Single State Registration System with a new Unified Carrier Registration agreement
  • roadability legislation to shift some of the safety liability of intermodal equipment safety during interchanges away from trucking
  • grant program for expanding truck parking capacity
  • eligibility for motor carrier safety grants to be used for non-truck traffic enforcement if it enhances truck safety
  • language clarifying hours-of-service exemption for agricultural transporters
  • language requiring DOT to provide carriers with additional driver-record information for pre-employment screening

    Although Congress has indicated it will move quickly to finish the highway bill, experts say there is little chance it will be finalized before the May 31 deadline.

    “At this point its highly unlikely they’ll get a bill done and to the President by the 31st, although we’d certainly like to see that,” Roth said. “It’s difficult to move that quickly—especially when you’re talking about versions of a 2,000-page bill that in many respects are very different. There are a lot of issues that will need to be worked out.”