Congress passes short-term highway bill

PTC extension granted until 2018 while Senate and House look to pass long-term highway bills.

The House and Senate passed a short-term extension of the highway bill to Nov. 20 that includes language extending the deadline for rail carriers to install positive train control (PTC) technology for three years to Dec. 31, 2018. 

The House floor action follows the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's markup and approval of its version of a six-year highway bill on Oct. 22 , but a recognition that negotiations with the Senate to come to final agreement on a long-term bill will take longer than the Oct. 29 deadline when current highway funding authorization expires.  The Senate has also passed its six-year bill in July.

Railroads continue to make progress of PTC development and deployment, but an extension of the deadline has been promoted by railroads and most rail customers, including those in agriculture. Agricultural groups feared not extending the deadline could trigger freight service disruptions and inefficiencies that would adversely affect the U.S. agriculture supply chain on the heels of near record harvests of corn and soybeans.

"U.S. agriculture depends upon efficient and safe transportation involving all modes - rail, truck, barge and vessels - to move commodities to domestic and international customers," added National Grain and Feed Assn. president Randy Gordon. 

The PTC extension applies to Class I rail carriers on all rail lines that handle at least 5 million gross tons of traffic annually, and also are used to transport either passenger traffic or toxic inhalation hazard (TIH) cargo. Based upon public statements made by at least two significant Class I railroads, the NGFA has said that failure to extend the current Dec. 31, 2015, deadline in a responsible way could result in severe service disruptions and delays for a broad range of agricultural products, not just hazardous cargo.

Anhydrous ammonia is an example of a toxic material that would not be transported by railroads if a PTC extension is not provided by Congress. Many cooperatives have made or are making plans to receive and distribute fertilizer for the spring of 2016.  In order to conduct this planning, cooperatives require a predictable forecast for rail service, said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soybean Transportation Coalition.

An issue of particular importance to agriculture and the broader economy - allowing for sixth-axel - was not included in the short-term legislation and will be offered as an amendment when the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform (STRR) Act of 2015 (H.R. 3763) is considered by the full House next week.

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Rep. Reid Ribble’s (R., Wisc.) Safe, Flexible, and Efficient (SAFE) Trucking Act (H.R. 3488) would allow states to permit 6-axle, 91,000 lbs. semis on their interstate system. STC said the additional sixth axel will decrease truck density and increase motorist safety. The use of a six axle, 91,000 lbs. semi will enable a farmer to transport an additional 137 bushels of soybeans or wheat or 146 additional bushels of corn per load. 

Steenhoek noted that since projected revenues into the Highway Trust Fund will be sufficient into spring of 2016, passing the extension by October 29 will not require the more acrimonious task of identifying additional revenue to keep the trust fund solvent. 

“Of course, the most consequential issue related to this overall debate is the need to secure additional revenue to meet our nation’s immediate and long term transportation needs,” he said. 

The responsibility for developing such a strategy resides with the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee.  Of course, current Ways and Means chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wisc.) was chosen to become the next Speaker of the House, which obviously would change the leadership of the Ways and Means Committee. 

“In short, a lot of issues need to be resolved before a clear forecast of surface transportation funding can be provided,” Steenhoek said.

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