This story appears in the Dec. 1 print edition of Transport Topics.
Sen. Susan Collins said she is negotiating with congressional leaders to ensure that her proposal to suspend changes to the hours-of-service restart rule is included in an omnibus bill that would fund the government through the end of fiscal 2015.
The Maine Republican explained her efforts in an exclusive interview with Transport Topics on Nov. 20, in which she also touched on the complexities facing the next Congress in trying to agree on a new long-term highway-funding law.
“We just started those negotiations, and so we’re very much in the initial stage,” Collins said of the HOS proposal. “My hope, obviously, is that the language . . . will be retained. But at this point, it’s impossible to predict what the outcome will be of those negotiations.”
Congressional appropriators have indicated they could unveil the omnibus package as early as this week. A continuing resolution law keeping the federal government funded expires Dec. 11. Without action on an omnibus, or another continuing resolution, a shutdown of the government is possible.
Collins said if Congress opts not to consider an omnibus, the chances of her proposal advancing “will be much harder.”
“We’ll be working very hard for the next couple of weeks to try to see if we can get an agreement, and my hope is that we will produce an omnibus, rather than a continuing resolution,” Collins said.
Her proposal would suspend for a year the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s restart rule changes that took effect in July 2013. It also would require FMCSA to provide Congress with a study of the rule.
The rule changes require drivers to take off two consecutive periods of 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. during a 34-hour restart. They limit the maximum average workweek for truckers to 70 hours, and they require truckers to account for a 30-minute break eight hours into their shift.
Earlier this year, a Senate committee approved Collins’ proposal to a fiscal 2015 transportation funding bill with bipartisan support. The bill was briefly debated on the Senate floor, but the chamber’s leaders did not allow a vote on it.
One potential roadblock in the lame-duck session is the strong opposition to her proposal from key Democrats, such as Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Cory Booker of New Jersey also oppose her plan, as does the Obama administration.
In the new Congress, transportation leaders will be pressured to craft a multi-year highway bill. The current surface transportation law, MAP-21, expires in May after Congress approved a 10-month reauthorization.
Collins said she has “not yet reached a conclusion” on how to provide sustainable funding for the depleting federal Highway Trust Fund account. In recent years, lawmakers have been unable to agree on how to fund the account, which is kept solvent through short-term funding boosts.
“I want to look at all of the options. It’s evident that we can’t keep coming up with short-term patches because that creates great uncertainty in the repair and construction of our highways, bridges, pedestrian [walkways] and bikeways,” Collins said. “So we need a more permanent solution than just patching together the temporary fixes.”
Collins is the top choice to lead the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee (T-HUD) when the new Congress convenes next month. Senate GOP leaders are expected to determine the leadership of key committees in the coming weeks.
“I really enjoy that subcommittee’s issues and would look forward to being the chairman of it. But I don’t yet know how the musical chairs are going to sort themselves,” she said.
A majority of her constituents voted to send Collins back to the Senate for a fourth term. She easily defeated Democratic challenger Shenna Bellows in the midterm elections.
Back in Maine, Brian Bouchard, president of H.O. Bouchard Inc., a regional carrier with 100 trucks, praised Collins’ efforts. Bouchard campaigned for the senator, whom he said “gets it” on transportation issues.
“When you talk to her, she’s done her homework. She understands your concerns. She is quite a workaholic. She really goes to work for the industry, and I’m very impressed with her performance,” Bouchard said.
First elected to the Senate in 1996, Collins is the top Republican on the T-HUD panel, where she has collaborated with Democrats to approve funding for emergency transportation projects, and helped craft legislation to authorize funding for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program.