Senate Passes Highway Bill

On March 14, the U.S. Senate passed its version of surface transportation reauthorization, termed Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (“MAP-21”), on a substantially bipartisan vote of 74 to 22. This bill, substantially negotiated last year among a small bipartisan caucus of Environment & Public Works Committee leaders, has been criticized for its short (two-year) term—making planning and funding commitments to long-term projects difficult—and for its funding formula, which not only zeros out the existing Highway Trust Fund during the bill’s two-year term but shifts revenue from sources that extend ten years into the future, well beyond the conclusion of the projects named in the bill. The bill’s advocates defend “borrowing from the future” funding as enabling job creation in a soft economy. (The bill calls for $109 billion in spending over its two-year term.)


The Senate bill does not contain any provision directly related to truck weight (or size), although it does call for a two-year study, in very comprehensive terms, of the possible impact of truck size and weight reform on safety, infrastructure wear, and other criteria, inserted by influential Committee member Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey). Truck weight reform proponents, including FRA, regard the inclusion of this provision as an obstructive measure to protect rail interests from pricing pressure from productivity improvement in trucking; and technical evaluation of the study proposal—by the American Trucking Associations, among others—cast serious doubt on the federal Department of Transportation’s ability to complete the study, as outlined, within a two-year period, or even within a much longer period.


Meanwhile—to take statements from Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chair John Mica (R-Florida) at face value—the House remains committed to a five-year bill, although the House leadership also has made statements suggesting its position will be flexible. In view of the Senate version’s strong majority, and the support of the Administration, supporting statements from the American Trucking Associations, and increasingly vocal calls from road construction interests to get projects moving, most observers think a two-year bill is the most likely outcome of a House-Senate conference, whether such a conference occurs before or after the most recent Continuing Resolution on surface transportation expires, on March 31.


With most observers anticipating that the final bill—if there is a final bill before the November election—will extend two years or less, it seems likely that a new Surface Transportation Reauthorization process will launch sometime in 2013. FRA is working with AgHaul, the Coalition for Transportation Productivity, and other aligned interests to limit any “study” provision to a term of one year or less, so that any restarted Surface Transportation Reauthorization process can again consider truck weight reform in short order, without a delayed report from such a study delaying enactment of reform.