The final surface transportation bill passed on Friday, providing victories and disappointments for shippers and freight transportation providers. President Obama signaled he will sign the bill early next week. Overall, the bill should at least give state and local government transportation agencies the ability to plan for larger projects, because legislation maintains current highway funding until September 2014.
The bill will likely speed up construction of highway projects and increase financing leverage for private infrastructure work. Ports, however, saw their hopes of getting more money through the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund dampened, as the bill took a softer stance than advocates wanted. Most truck companies will welcome the requirement that trucks have electronic onboard recording devices, while owner-operators will recoil at the additional costs for the technology.
Below is breakdown of the key freight-related policies in the transport bill:
The bill aims to reduce by half the average highway construction time period of 15 years by streamlining environmental review. The number of federal highway programs would be cut by two-thirds to free up resources for states' and cities’ highway projects. The bill increases accountability for highway projects with a greater focus on how the projects would reduce fatalities, ease congestion, improve freight movement and boost the economy. However, some transportation advocates say the bill doesn't do enough to ensure infrastructure is maintained and a mulitmodal approach is taken.
National Strategic Freight Policy
The bill calls for the creation of a national freight transportation policy, which would include the designation of a network of 27,000 miles of roads. The policy is aimed at giving states and local agencies a better overview of how their freight projects can fit into the national movement of goods and materials. The language mirriors similar provisions with the Senate bill, but the proposed spending of $2 billion each year on network improvements appears to have been left out of the final version. States that create a freight plan that meets DOT guidelines can be reimbursed up to 95 percent of the cost if the project fits into the national freight network. Although the bill calls for the tracking of intermodal movements of freight, funding for the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, a program researching freight movements, wasn’t included.
Promotion of Private Investment
Annual funding of the Transportation Infrastructure Financing and Innovation Act is increased from $120 million to eventually up to $1 billion. The maximum share for project cost is increased from 33 percent to 49 percent, and projects in rural areas will get better lending terms.
Much to the dismay of port advocates, the bill takes a softer tone in encouraging the presidential administration and Congress to spend all money collected through the Harbor Maintenance Tax on port projects. The Realize America’s Maritime Promise Act, or RAMP Act, within the Senate version had stronger wording than in the final bill. The final bill directs the administration to give an annual estimate of the maintenance needs of U.S. ports. The study would also estimate how much funding would be needed to make 95 percent of U.S. ports and waterways operational within three years.
The legislation requires all commercial trucks to be outfitted with electronic on-board recording devices. More study of driving fatigue and the maximum driving time requirement in relation to the 34-hour start rule is also called for. The legislation also includes Senate provisions addressing commercial driver safety: driver medical qualifications, operator training, driver’s license program, driver’s requirements and driver information systems. Veterans who drove heavy trucks while in the service will find it easier to gain a commercial vehicle license.
Crackdown on ‘Chameleon’ Carriers
The bill boosts the enforcement capabilities of the Department of Transportation and FMCSA to crack down on unsafe companies restarting business under a new name.
Truck Weight and Size
The bill calls for study on the impact of truck size and weights on U.S. highways and on safety. The language comes after truck carriers and railroads got into a dispute during negotiations over a defeated push to raise truck weight and size limits.
Freight Broker Surety Bonds
Freight brokers now need a $75,000 surety bond, as part of an effort to crack down fraud in the industry. The Transportation Intermediaries Association had pushed for a $100,000 surety bond requirement, while the Association of Independent Property Brokers opposed an increase of bonding from existing $10,000 mark.