Congressional panels placed their stamps of approval on a wide range of transportation issues Tuesday from rail-crossing safety to the truck-rate undercharge controversy as they rushed to tie up loose ends before the end of Congress' year.

The House Public Works and Transportation Committee Tuesday morning approved legislation to end billions of dollars in lawsuits on retroactive truck-rate undercharges, and approved funding for rail hazardous-materials laws through fiscal 1996.On the other side of Capitol Hill, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee passed legislation redefining who should design traffic control systems at rail/highway crossings, a measure expected to limit railroad liability.

The Senate panel also passed a $2 billion, one-year extension of the Airport Improvement Program administered by the Federal Aviation Administration; a three-year extension of the National Transportation Safety Board, and a three- year extension of the law that regulates rail shipments of hazardous materials. Other bills approved would revamp product liability laws for general aviation and support federal backing to several high-speed rail corridors.

Most of the bills considered by the two committees have been on the back burner for months, but the measure to reassign authority for grade-crossing decisions had not been introduced until shortly before the hearing began.

The Senate committee bill instructs the Department of Transportation to issue a regulation within a year to specify whether the federal or state governments, or railroads, will have responsibility to choose the type of warning devices needed at each grade crossing.

Last spring the Supreme Court ruled that federal law wasn't clear on who held legal responsibility to make that decision. The court said that without such a clear definition of responsibility, railroads cannot be automatically excused from damage suits after an accident at a grade crossing.

The bill, which was introduced Tuesday morning by Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., and Surface Transportation Subcommittee Chairman J. James Exon, D-Neb., does not directly address the issue of liability following an accident.

However, Transportation Secretary Federico Pena reportedly favored legislation that would have specifically assigned the responsibility to state highway departments, a move that would have eliminated rail liability for lawsuits that challenge the choice of traffic devices.

Mr. Pena visited Sen. Hollings Friday, but failed to convince him to support the proposal. The administration's lobbying did, however, result in Sen. Hollings' allowing the bill to come out of committee.

The provision is part of a bill creating federal funding for high-speed rail corridors. Other parts of the bill not only please freight railroads, but Amtrak and rail labor as well.

The bill makes it clear that no matter what type of company operates the high-speed corridors, rail labor laws apply, putting Amtrak on an equal footing with any other potential operators, based on costs.

Accident liability has long been a sticking point because freight railroads balked at the prospect of multi-million dollar claims along their rights-of way. The bill would require applicants for the corridor to obtain insurance policies of $500 million for each accident, effectively indemnifying the freight carriers.

The shipper-friendly undercharge bill passed the House Public Works and Transportation Committee by a voice vote as expected, but not before Rep. William Lipinski, D-Ill., unsuccessfully argued for more protection for out- of-work truck drivers.

The fight is now expected to move to the House Judiciary Committee, where chairman Rep. Jack Brooks, D-Texas, last year sought jurisdiction of a similar Senate-passed bill.

Undercharge claims are the difference between the amount originally billed by a trucking company and paid by a shipper and the amount later claimed as the legal rate by trustees for bankrupt carriers.

Originally, undercharges were the result of lower rates negotiated, but never legally filed at the Interstate Commerce Commission. Most claims now, however, are based on rates or contracts that are on file, but are challenged by the trustees as invalid.

Rep. Lipinski attempted to raise the percentages of the settlements to 25 percent on less-than-truckload shipments from the 20 percent in the bill approved last week by the Surface Transportation Subcommittee. He also wanted truckload settlement percentages to increase to 20 percent from 15 percent.

Committee members also rejected an amendment by Rep. Lipinski to eliminate an amnesty provision that would wipe out claims based on unfiled rates that predate a 1990 Supreme Court decision. The Illinois Democrat, arguing on behalf of bankruptcy trustees and the Teamsters union, said the amnesty provision would wipe out 90 percent to 95 percent of all undercharge claims and prevents workers from recovering any back pay or wages.

But committee chairman, Rep. Norman Mineta, D-Calif., who introduced the undercharge bill, said the claims eliminated would be a small percentage of the total.


Major provisions approved by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee:

* Require applicants for high-speed rail to obtain $500 million in insurance to relieve freight railroads of accident liability.

* Reauthorize the rail Hazardous Materials Transportation Act for three years.

Major provisions approved by the House Public Works and Transportation Committee:

* Establish settlement provisions for ending retroactive truck rate undercharge claims.

* Reauthorize the rail Hazardous Materials Transportation Act for three years.