December 12, 2016 4:00 AM, EST

Congress Passes Restart Fix

Hours-of-Service Provision Within CR Enacted

This is an updated version of a story that appears in the Dec. 12 print edition of Transport Topics.

The clarification of an hours-of-service rule for truckers in a short-term funding bill was signed by President Obama shortly after the Senate cleared the bill on Dec. 9 and a shutdown of the federal government was averted.

The bill’s enactment solidified a win for trucking executives critical of hours-of-service policy. The so-called fix to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s HOS rule was sought successfully by American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear and his team on Capitol Hill.

“Thanks to hard work by congressional leaders of both parties and in both chambers, we are one step closer to having an hours-of-service restart rule that makes sense and puts safety first,” Spear said after the Senate vote.

Opponents of the HOS provision argued the bill would potentially result in a greater number of fatigued truckers on highways.  

Responding to critics, Spear said: “This issue has been out there. To suggest that this is any way a partisan issue — it’s been well-vetted.”

Specifically, the trucking-centric provision requires the U.S. Department of Transportation to proceed with the existing 34-hour restart provision in the hours-of-service rule to “ensure continuity in federal rest regulations, should the report on the rule [mandated in prior acts] not meet the criteria set by Congress,” the House Appropriations Committee, which produced the legislation, explained.

A 2015 funding law had suspended the 2013 restart provision in the hours-of-service (HOS) rule update, pending a DOT report being prepared by Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. Those rules included a 34-hour restart and two consecutive 1 a.m.-to-5 a.m. rest periods.

If the pending report finds the HOS rules adopted July 1, 2013, successfully address fatigue, the rules would go back into effect. During the rule’s suspension, truck drivers have followed pre-July 2013 HOS regulations.

“These rules, put forward based on a very limited laboratory sleep study, could have had serious negative safety impacts,” Spear said. “The restart is an important tool for drivers, not to maximize driving time, but to have the flexibility to maximize off-duty time and time at home, and we are pleased that drivers will continue to have unrestricted access to it.”

“The changes to the restart could have been devastating to my fleet and thousands of other trucking companies across the country,” said ATA Chairman Kevin Burch, president of Jet Express Inc., of Dayton, Ohio. “By including this language, Congress has done a tremendous service for highway safety, the trucking industry, its millions of professional drivers and Congress should be thanked.”

The provision was expected to be included in a fiscal 2017 omnibus, but appropriators opted for the short-term bill.

The bill advanced through the Senate on Dec. 9 by a vote of 63-36, after Democrats, led by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, pleaded with Republicans who control the chamber to ensure long-term certainty of coal miners’ health-care benefits.

Republican leaders eventually opted to proceed with the House-passed bill that would fund federal agencies through April 28. On Dec. 8, the House passed the bill, known in Washington as a continuing resolution, by a vote of 326-96.

Before the House voted, Rep. David Price of North Carolina, the Democrats’ top transportation appropriator, said the provision would endanger “highway travel for millions of drivers across the country.” Price consistently fought efforts that would chip away at Obama-era HOS policies.

Objections to the trucking provision also came from Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). “Slipping these rollbacks into a CR may be business as usual in the Senate, but it’s something I cannot accept or at least let go by quietly,” Booker said Dec. 7.

Aside from trucking, House Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) criticized the legislation’s proposed funding levels. The funding bill would keep transportation programs funded at fiscal 2016 levels, which would be $2.4 billion less than the authorized levels in the five-year highway law, the FAST Act, enacted in 2015.

“Looks like House Republicans missed the memo from President-elect Donald Trump on boosting transportation infrastructure investment,” DeFazio said. “House Republicans like to talk about this ‘big league’ trillion-dollar transportation plan they supposedly want to pass; cuts like these make you question whether they are serious about it.”

Also tucked in the legislation was supplemental aid to assist in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water crisis.

The Republican-led House and Senate had intended to advance a fiscal 2017 omnibus funding bill that would’ve kept the federal agencies funded through Sept. 30. At the request of the Trump team, congressional leaders shifted their efforts on advancing the short-term bill. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) indicated Trump’s transition team expressed an interest in dictating funding priorities for fiscal 2017.