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Congress Agrees on Five-Year Highway Bill

Wednesday, December 2, 2015  
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Yesterday, negotiators from the House and Senate announced they had reached an agreement on a five-year, $281 billion highway and transit bill. Some of the highlights include:

• A new $4.5 billion grant program for “nationally significant freight and highway projects. To qualify, highway projects must be part of the National Highway Freight Network or the National Highway System, but up to $500 million can be awarded to freight rail or intermodal projects. In addition, the FAST Act also creates a $6.3 billion National Freight Program, with $6.3 billion being designated for highways, but allows 10% of the fund to be spent on intermodal projects.

• Requires FMCSA to commission a Transportation Research Board study of the CSA program to evaluate if scores accurately predict crash risk. Until that study is complete, and possible corrective actions taken, FMCSA must remove CSA alerts, percentiles and crashes found to be non-preventable from public view. In addition, the Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee has 18 months to recommend a crash preventability determination process to FMCSA.

• The Department of Health and Human Services is given one year to establish standards for the use of hair samples in Federal drug testing programs. Upon adoption of these standards by DOT, carriers would be allowed to use hair testing in lieu of urinalysis.

• FMCSA must modify its regulations to exempt veterans with truck driving experience from the CDL skills test requirement and to provide credit for military training to meet CDL minimum training requirements.

• The final bill made significant changes to proposals for a graduated licensing program (i.e. allowing younger drivers to cross state lines). The final language requires DOT to start a pilot program to monitor the safety performance of younger drivers, but requires those drivers be not just under the age of 21, but also be a current or former member of the armed forces (or a reservist) qualified as a motor transport operator. Once the pilot is completed, DOT would then make long-term recommendations on lowering the age at which a driver may operate in interstate commerce.

• The final bill also makes changes to the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program that allows states to convert untolled Interstate highways into toll roads. Under the new provision, states must have enabling legislation in place before an application is approved and states have a three-year deadline to complete their application. It also gives the three states that currently hold slots – Missouri, North Carolina and Virginia – one year to receive approval before losing the slot.

• Congress also orders FMCSA to determine what impact an increase in the minimum insurance levels would have on safety, on small and minority-owned carrier and owner-operators as well as study the ability of the insurance industry to provide expanded coverage, the extent to which the current limits adequately cover the costs associated with a crash today and the frequency that claims resulting from fatal crashes exceed the current limits.

• Finally, the bill does not include language that would have clarified Congress’ intent regarding state work and rest rules – commonly known as FAAA preemption. This language was adopted in the House as a result of court decisions upholding California’s meal and rest break rules.

The full House and Senate must now vote on the package, and may do so quickly enough to reauthorize the program before the latest short-term patch expires on Friday.