Joint committee reaches agreement on new federal highway bill, industry groups supportive

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 85 views 

A long-term federal transportation bill appears to be in front of Congress this week as they attempt to vote on the new plan before the end of the week, Arkansas’ congressional delegation said Tuesday night.

According to The Hill, a House/Senate conference committee hammered out an agreement Tuesday (Dec. 1) on a $305 billion, five-year highway bill that would extend federal transportation funding for projects around the country. A vote on the bill – Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act – is expected by the end of the week or early next week, officials have said.

The cost of the 1,300-page bill will be paid for with gas tax revenue and a package of $70 billion in offsets from other areas of the federal budget, the Hill reported Tuesday night. A temporary funding bill will expire on Friday (Dec. 4).

The bill will have nearly $205 billion on spending for highways and another $48 billion on transit projects, the Hill noted. The bill would also extend the charter of the Export-Import Bank until 2019.

A spokesman for U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said the bill will address needed priorities around the state.

“Senator Boozman is still reviewing the details of the 1,300-page bill but Arkansas infrastructure stands to benefit. More money will be returned to Arkansas for infrastructure. The bill also enables the designation of Route (Highway) 63 as I-555, which will attract economic development to the Jonesboro Region by officially placing it on the interstate highway system,” spokesman Patrick Creamer said. “He finds it very promising that Senate and House negotiators have come to an agreement on a long-term solution as Arkansas and other states cannot and should not have to rely on short-term funding that fails to provide certainty for important infrastructure improvements.”

On the Interstate 555 designation, U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro said the change will have a multi-pronged benefit.

“I’ve offered language that was included in the conference report which paves the way for U.S. 63 to finally receive interstate designation as I-555 while preserving traditional agricultural use across the St. Francis floodway. Being able to offer interstate access is a very important box to check for businesses, and I believe you’ll see those benefits accrue readily not just to Jonesboro, but all of North East Arkansas,” Crawford said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, also praised the conference agreement.

“Long-term certainty is essential for our states as they continue to plan for the needs of our nation’s transportation infrastructure. I am encouraged that the House and Senate were able to work together to bring this five-year paid-for surface transportation reauthorization to fruition,” Womack said.

U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Little Rock, said he had not reviewed all details of the conference agreement, but said Arkansas highway officials need funding certainty as soon as possible.

“As I have said before, infrastructure enhancements are crucial to growing our economy. I am currently reviewing the conference report and closely monitoring debate in the House to ensure that the plan not only provides these improvements, but does so in a way that is most fair for the American taxpayer,” Hill said in a statement.

Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, said a new federal highway bill that included key provisions for the trucking industry has been a top agenda item for the lobbying group.

“It is vital to our economy and the safety of citizens that transportation be adequately funded,” Newton said in a statement. “Our industry is dependent upon such legislation in order to advance our progressive safety initiatives and initiate regulatory reform.  While no bill is perfect, the FAST Act contains many measures to make highways safer and keep infrastructure funded for the next five years.”

Language in the bill supported by the Arkansas Trucking Association includes:
• Advances use of hair testing for federal mandated drug tests pending guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Services;

• Makes it easier for veterans to enter the trucking industry;

• Pushes for reform of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s CSA safety monitoring system; and

• Provides dedicated funds for important highway freight projects. 

A rule providing certain exemptions for veterans under the age of 21 was lauded by Newton.

“Our industry is facing a huge driver shortage, exacerbated by demographic challenges. The pilot program allowing veterans under the age of 21 to drive commercial trucks across state lines is a step in the right direction to attracting young people to our industry,” she said.

Items the trucking industry wanted in the bill but didn’t make it include:
• Addressing the patchwork of state rules allowing states to impose their own work and rest rules;

• Provisions to improve the nation’s commercial driving license programs, and

• Allowing younger drivers to enter the industry.

The agreement also drew the support of the American Trucking Associations.

“Today’s announcement that House and Senate leaders had reached an agreement on a long-term highway bill is welcome news to those of us in the transportation world,” ATA President and CEO Bill Graves said. “While we all, of course, wish there was more money to be had, this bill takes important steps to re-focus the program on important national projects and takes critical steps to improve trucking safety and efficiency.”