Required use of electronic onboard recorders on trucks and buses, a multimodal freight policy and new powers for federal safety agencies are inching closer to becoming part of a broader transportation bill. But the partisan divide over infrastructure funding is getting sharper as 2011 ends and an election year begins, clouding the prospects for just about any transportation-related measure to get through Congress.
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved a slew of transportation items on Dec. 14 despite unified Republican opposition to aspects of the proposed multimodal freight program and funding levels for safety agencies.
Partisan debate over the FREIGHT Act, a bill that would create a national multimodal freight program, and spending levels underscore dividing lines likely to re-emerge in 2012 when the Senate takes up a broad transportation spending bill.
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The FREIGHT Act would create “a new unfunded discretionary grant program” and “possibly divert money from the Highway Trust Fund,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, the committee’s ranking Republican. She cited concerns from the American Trucking Associations and other highway user groups that Highway Trust Fund money would be used on non-highway projects.
“ATA believes a multimodal program should be funded out of the general fund, not the Highway Trust Fund, since other modes do not contribute to the HTF,” ATA President and CEO Bill Graves said in a Dec. 13 letter to Hutchison, committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and surface transportation subcommittee leaders.
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Republicans also protested the addition of the FREIGHT Act to the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Enhancement Act at what they said was the last minute. The CMVSEA reauthorizes the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. CMVSEA sponsor Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., defended adding the FREIGHT Act to the bill. “This (bill) will create a multimodal freight economy to efficiently move goods and create jobs,” Lautenberg said. “The bill is critical to making our transportation system better for generations to come.”
Hutchison attempted to strip the FREIGHT Act from the bill, but her amendment failed in a party line 13-11 vote.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., introduced a proposal to cut Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration funding to 2008 levels, but that also was defeated 13-11. “We’re actually trying to increase safety by reducing spending,” DeMint said. “We don’t need to continuously increase spending and mandates.”
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., offered an amendment to create an Office of Freight Planning and Development with the Department of Transportation. That proposal was approved 13-11 — that party line again.
Eventually, the CMVSEA was approved, once again, by a 13-11 vote. The legislation goes to the full Senate for a possible vote or further negotiation.
For business and legislative interests that have seen the once largely non-partisan nature of transportation tossed aside in Washington’s highly pitched partisan environment, the votes signaled that consensus even on roads and trucks was going to be hard to find. “If there was one area where I thought we had bipartisanship, it was in the area of safety,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
The surface transportation safety bills are likely to be merged with a broad infrastructure spending package from Boxer’s committee. “We’re going to have a nightmare if we can’t come together,” she said.
Republicans also objected to increased funding for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration provided for in the Motor Vehicle and Highway Safety Improvement Act, which reauthorized several NHTSA programs. Hutchison complained funding levels had been increased “exponentially.” That bill was sent to the full Senate as well.
The Hazardous Materials Transportation Safety Improvement Act proved less controversial — it was reported to the full Senate by the full committee.