May 4, 2015 3:30 AM, EDT

Bill Maintains Restart Suspension, OKs Twin 33s

By Michele Fuetsch, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the May 4 print edition of Transport Topics.

WASHINGTON — A House appropriations bill unveiled last week could keep the suspended 34-hour restart rule from being reinstated by Sept. 30, and would permit use of twin 33-foot trailers.

The provisions were attached to the 2016 appropriations bill released April 28 by the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development subcommittee.

It was not clear at press time who attached any of the riders to the appropriations bill.

“It’s a subcommitte product,” said Appropriations Committee spokeswoman Jennifer Hing.

But the riders drew a swift retort from Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Democrats on the subcommittee.

“There are some very important safety protections being challenged through the appropriations process without the benefit of hearings and without the benefit of testing those riders through public discourse,” Foxx told Transport Topics.

“The appropriations process shouldn’t be used to create policy. My hope is that folks will reconsider the merits of some of these issues,” he said.

The bill, which calls for $17.2 billion in discretionary spending for DOT and $572 million for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, also contains riders to defund the FMCSA’s work on new minimum-insurance levels for carriers and to allow trucks on Idaho’s interstate highways to weigh as much as 129,000 pounds.

The trailer provision would allow rigs to pull two 33-foot trailers on highways where there is a 28-foot limit.

“Controversial riders generally should not be included on an appropriations bill, and those on truck length and weight have no place in particular, given that the authorizers are actively working on a reauthorization proposal,” Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) said.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is working on the transportation reauthorization bill.

As for the restart issue, if the appropriations bill survives intact in the House and Senate, the 34-hour restart could not be reinstated unless a government study finds that drivers who operated under the rule “demonstrated statistically significant improvement in all outcomes related to safety, operator fatigue, driver health and longevity, and work schedules” compared with drivers not operating under the restart.

The restart rule, which originally took effect in July 2013, forced drivers to take rest periods between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. over two consecutive days. Congress late last year ordered a study on the restart comparing two sets of drivers, one operating with the restart rule, the other without it. The restart was suspended until at least Sept. 30 but will be extended if the study isn’t completed by then.

On April 29, the same day the subcommittee voted to send the appropriations bill to the full House panel, the American Transportation Research Institute released a report that found a shift in on-duty hours occurred during “more congested time periods post-July 1, 2013,” due to more trucks on the road in peak morning traffic.

ATRI also said it found a “statistically significant increase in truck crashes after the July 1, 2013, rule change, specifically with injury and tow-away crashes.” ATRI said it looked at “several years of pre- and post-July 1 federal truck crash data.”

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said the riders in the appropriations bill mean that “Christmas came early for the trucking industry — longer, heavier trucks, stalled enforcement of hours-of-service rules and inadequate insurance requirements.”

However, American Trucking Associations said in a statement that it is “pleased” the House Appropriations Committee has chosen to include a number of provisions that will improve safety and efficiency in an industry that moves nearly 10 billion tons of freight annually.

“ATA will continue to look for legislative opportunities to advance our pro-safety, pro-trucking agenda, whether they are through this bill or other potential long-term transportation bills,” the federation said.

Likewise, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association said it is supporting the riders that address the restart and insurance minimums. (It didn’t have a position on 33-foot trailers.) For most carriers, the minimum coverage requirement is $750,000 with those specializing in hazardous materials required to have either $1 million or $5 million depending on what they haul.

As for the Highway Trust Fund, the appropriations legislation provides $40.25 billion, matching the 2015 level. That spending goes largely to formula-driven highway programs carried out by the states.

That funding would depend on adoption of a transportation policy bill updating the programs in MAP-21, the 2012 highway law that expires at the end of May.

The appropriations bill, however, slashes funding to $100 million for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery infrastructure program, known as TIGER.

The program provides grants to fund state and local government projects. Congress allocated $500 million for TIGER in 2015.