Although September’s passage of a Continuing Resolution will keep federal highway programs funded through March 31, 2012, both House and Senate have indicated the will to complete work on a comprehensive Surface Transportation Reauthorization bill on an accelerated schedule, during November—partially because of a breakthrough in the impasse over funding, and partially because the rejection of the President’s “Jobs Act” has made a robust highway bill attractive in terms of job creation. The funding breakthrough—to close the deficit between what current fuel and other highway taxes can raise and what inflation-impacted roads projects require—came in the form of a commitment from House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to find a new revenue source to cover the gap that did not entail a tax increase. (The most commonly mentioned means to that end is to direct federal royalties from new offshore oil leases into the Highway Trust Fund, but the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is firm in its assertion that no decision has been made.)
The Senate appears likely to move before the House does, and the Committee of jurisdiction, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has stated that it will begin markup on its version of the Surface Transportation Reauthorization bill on November 9. It is possible, but unlikely, that the Senate version of the bill will contain a truck weight provision; views on weight reform are evenly divided within the EPW Committee, but two influential members—Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California) and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey)—are on record in opposition.
On the House side, we continue to receive strong—but by no means clear—signals from within the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that the House version will contain truck weight reform provisions, “in language that you will recognize.” FRA and its allies believe our contacts are referring to the terms of the Safe and Efficient Transportation Act (HR 763), or something close to it; and we are pulling on all oars to ensure that including SETA at the outset of the Committee process is a priority with T&I Chairman John Mica (R-Florida). We expect the House T&I process to launch in mid-November.
Meanwhile, SETA has gained an important ally with the endorsement of the Truckload Carriers Association, which joined the American Trucking Associations in endorsing the 97,000-pound/6-axle configuration as a legislative position. In turn, ATA endorsed TCA’s existing preference—increasing 5-axle trucks’ gross vehicle weight limit to 88,000 pounds on the Interstate system—provided that these trucks are equipped with enhanced drum brakes, to keep braking distance within the 250-foot range now considered standard. This stipulation, of course, may raise the same hesitations about the feasibility of new capital investment that some truckers have already raised with respect to SETA’s requirement for a sixth axle. (The Truckload Carriers Association “represents dry van, refrigerated, flatbed, and intermodal container carriers operating in the 48 contiguous states,” comprising operators of more than 200,000 trucks.)