House committee advances surface transportation bill

Extension of PTC deadline for rail carriers and increased truck weights for milk hauling included in highway bill.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved its version of the six-year Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015 Thursday by a voice vote, a marathon mark-up which at the start included up to 150 amendments.

For agriculture, there were a handful of important inclusions including an extension of the deadline for rail carriers to implement positive train control (PTC) as well as allow increased truck weights for milk hauling.

Enacted in 2008 following a tragic commuter train crash, PTC technology is intended to enhance the safety of train operations. Congress mandated this technology be implemented by December 31, 2015.

The railroads have indicated that, despite their efforts thus far to install this technology, it will not be possible to have PTC fully implemented by the statutory deadline. Additionally, the railroads have indicated that if the deadline is not extended, they will have to dramatically scale back, or potentially cease, operations.

Class I rail carriers have reported major challenges in installing and implementing this new technology - some of which are the result of delays in receiving approval of safety plans from government regulators and in obtaining radio spectrum and Federal Communications Commission permits for the required communications infrastructure.

The National Grain and Feed Assn. had said that failure to extend the deadline could result in service disruptions and delays for a broad array of agricultural products, not just hazardous cargo.

Milk hauling

The committee also approved an amendment backed by the National Milk Producers Federation allowing states to increase truck weights so that milk is shipped as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

The bipartisan amendment, offered by Rep. Richard Hanna (R., N.Y.) and Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D., Conn.), gives states the option to issue permits allowing milk haulers to increase their truck weights beyond Interstate Highway System limits. The permits would still need to comply with each state’s trucking laws.

NMPF president and chief executive officer Jim Mulhern said, “Milk is extremely perishable. Both the supply of it coming from farms, and the daily intake needs of processing plants, can fluctuate unpredictably. As a result, milk handling requirements sometimes conflict with limits on truck weights.”

More amendments sought

Several agricultural issues were not addressed in the committee’s markup and agricultural groups are hopeful a final solution can still be included once it comes up on the House floor. The bill could be considered on the House floor the week of Oct. 26 or the week of Nov. 2.

Most significantly, the bill does not address the ability for states to allow increased truck weights on federal interstates within their state for trucks with an additional (sixth) axle and transport up to 91,000 pounds on Interstate highways. The federal weight limit for Interstate highways has been set at 80,000 pounds since 1982.

Rep. Reid Ribble (R., Wis.) has indicated his intent to offer an amendment, when the bill reaches the House floor, to include the increased truck weight provisions.

"Federal highway truck weight limits currently are lower than most state road weight limits, and this inconsistency presents obstacles to efficient movement of U.S. grains," said NGFA director of economics and government relations Max Fisher. "This bill will improve this situation, taking better advantage of our Interstate highway system infrastructure while still protecting highway safety."

Agricultural groups also called on the House to include provisions that decrease the commercial driver's license age for interstate transit through a proposed pilot program and collecting data on key port performance metrics.

The American Soybean Assn. also said it is hoping the House will include an exemption to a hazardous materials endorsement for custom harvesters and other operators of similar equipment to enable them to transport the amount of fuel necessary for a single day of field operations with today’s agricultural equipment. Currently Class A CDL holders cannot haul more than 118 gallons of diesel fuel without a hazardous materials endorsement.

ASA also hopes to see an inclusion that clarifies that states may adopt standards on “covered farm vehicles” that are more reasonable to farmers and farm employees operating farm trucks near the farm, without jeopardizing federal transportation funding in those states.

Livestock and poultry producers are seeking removing the 30-minute break after eight hours of service rule. The National Pork Producers Council has petitioned the Department of Transportation each of the last three years, seeking a waiver from the requirement. This spring, livestock operators were granted a two-year waiver – the maximum allowable under the current law – from the rule, beginning June 12. The Senate highway bill version would permanently extend the waiver. n

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