Highway bill crosses finish line

Final bill includes 5-year funding for federal transportation assistance.

By JACQUI FATKA

THE House of Representatives and Senate successfully reached an agreement on a multi-year highway reauthorization bill and got it to the President’s desk ahead of the Dec. 4 funding expiration. The House passed the bill earlier in the day Thursday followed by the Senate Thursday evening.

The two houses of Congress had been conferencing since before Thanksgiving to resolve their differences on setting federal policies for federal surface transportation programs, also known as the highway bill.

The conferees announced they had reached agreement on the $305 billion, 5-year bill on Monday. The fully funded FAST Act increases highway spending by 15% and transit spending by 18% over five years.

Lawmakers had to pass the bill by Friday, when current federal highway funding expired. The Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, or "FAST Act," includes the repeal of the $3 billion in cuts to crop insurance companies that lawmakers included in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015.

"The House and Senate conferees' agreement on multi-year surface transportation legislation will provide greater certainty for transportation infrastructure projects that are critical to all sectors of U.S. agriculture," said National Grain and Feed Assn. director of economics and government relations Max Fisher, who said the bill “is vital for U.S. agriculture and its ability to be a competitive supplier in serving domestic and international markets, as well as to the economic well-being of the entire country."

The agreement includes a port performance statistics program. "Keeping track of port performance data, at least at the nation's busiest ports, should help draw attention to the damages of port disputes before they impact the entire supply chain," Fisher said.  

Reps. Kurt Schrader (D., Ore.) and Dan Newhouse (R., Wash.) led the effort to include the Port Performance Program within the FAST Act requiring the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) to collect and report port statistics which will then be published in an annual report by BTS. The bill also establishes a working group to make recommendations to BTS to determine specific port metrics. The working group will have at least 22 members, including government officials and representatives from labor and industry, with the final decision on metrics resting with the BTS Director.

Schrader said he hopes the inclusion of this provision in the FAST Act “can strengthen the tools necessary to prevent further port disruptions and lead to increased investment and a boost to our economy.”

The FAST Act also permanently removes the 30-minute break after eight hours-of-service requirement, which will avoid unnecessary discomfort for livestock and poultry during transport.

The National Milk Producers Federation and International Dairy Foods Association praised Congress for its decision to include a dairy-specific amendment that gives states the option to issue permits allowing milk haulers to increase their truck weights beyond Interstate Highway System limits. This would allow milk trucks in some states to carry more product without being forced to offload portions of it at other state borders.

Robert Guenther, United Fresh's senior vice president for public policy, expressed disappointment that a proposal for national hiring standards for motor carriers to provide clarity and consistency for operators looking to hire carriers wasn’t included. Agricultural groups had urged for inclusion of a pilot program that allows states to form compacts to allow CDL (commercial driver’s license) drivers ages 18 to 21 to drive across state lines. 

The bill does not include a priority provision by many agricultural groups that would have allowed trucks with six axles to transport up to 91,000 pounds on Interstate highways.
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