Congress balked at reforming the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, choosing instead to say all the taxes on maritime imports should be spent on ports. That’s a softer approach than sought by the Realize America’s Maritime Promise Act, or RAMP Act, the main House vehicle of HMT reform. The act never would have been a clear mandate, but unlike the current bill’s language, it could be used to slap the hands of would-be HMT siphoners. Roughly one-third of the taxes collected through the 0.125 percent charge on the value of imported cargo is used to plug other budget gaps, with the rest going to ports. The trust fund collects about $1.5 billion annually and will have a nearly $7 billion surplus by the end of fiscal 2013, according to the American Association of Port Authorities. The association took heart that language in the bill highlights the need for maritime investment and that ports aren’t getting their fair share. But such “Sense of Congress” language is unlikely to translate to more dredging dollars.
The biggest change for the trucking industry is the requirement of electronic on-board recording devices. The mandate of the technology, now to be called recording devices, was requested by trucking companies and resisted by owner-operators, who fear the additional costs of the “black boxes.” The bill also boosts the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s ability to crack down on so-called chameleon carriers, or unsafe companies that restart under a different name. Amid a nationwide challenge to hire more drivers, the bill aims to make it easier for veterans who drove trucks in the service to gain a commercial driver’s license. The call for study of driving fatigue and the maximum driving time requirement in relation to the 34-hour start appears to be aimed at providing ammunition against the FMCSA’s recent hours-of-service ruling. Similarily, research ordered on the impact of truck size and weights on U.S. highways and on safety is likely part of an attempt to allow bigger trucks and heavier loads. The major railroads successfully lobbied to strike provisions increasing the size limits for rigs and truckloads during bill negotiations.
Freight brokers and forwarders have approximately a year to make sure they have a $75,000 surety bond, a controversial mandate passed through the bill. Supporters, including the Transportation Intermediaries Association, say raising the bond requirement from $10,000 will help prevent fraud in the industry by pushing out underfunded agents. Opponents contend raising the bond amount to mirror the level of non-vessel-operating common carriers will put thousands of small brokers out of business. The bill also will tighten regulations on brokers, forwarders and trust companies, and motor carriers no longer will be able to re-broker freight without proper broker authority and bond. The new rules won’t apply to custom brokers and air forwarders.