June 9, 2014 4:00 AM, EDT

Senate Panel Takes Step to Fix HOS Restart

Action Would Suspend Changes 1 Year; Proposal Still Faces Several Hurdles
By Eugene Mulero, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the June 9 print edition of Transport Topics.

WASHINGTON — A Senate panel voted overwhelmingly June 5 to suspend for one year changes to the hours-of-service restart provision implemented last year by federal truck safety regulators, and also approved a fiscal 2015 transportation spending bill.

By a vote of 21-9, the Appropriations Committee adopted an amendment offered by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) to lift a restriction that the 34-hour restart provision be used only once within a seven-day period. In addition, the amendment suspends the requirement that drivers’ rest time includes consecutive 1 a.m.-to-5 a.m. segments.

FMCSA would have one year to review the safety effects of the rule changes and report to Congress to justify its safety claims, under Collins’ proposal.

In calling on colleagues for their support, Collins said the changes have resulted in “unintended consequences . . . not in the best interest of public safety, truck drivers or the businesses and consumers who depend on their services.”

She explained: “There’s increasing concern that the regulations affecting overnight driving are actually resulting in more trucks being on the road during the most congested hours and during the hours when children are going to and from school.”

Leading up to the hearing, American Trucking Associations championed the amendment, stressing the restart changes have presented economic hardships on fleets and reduced drivers’ wages.

“Since these rules were proposed in 2010, ATA has maintained that they were unsupported by science, and since they were implemented in 2013, the industry and economy have experienced substantial negative effects as a result,” ATA President Bill Graves said shortly after the vote.

“America expects its freight to be moved, and these new rules prevent some drivers from taking a restart over the weekend,” said ATA Chairman Philip Byrd Sr., president of Charleston, South Carolina-based Bulldog Hiway Express.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association also said it was pleased the measure passed.

 “We thank Sen. Collins and the supportive members of the committee for their work on this important amendment,” said Todd Spencer, executive vice president of OOIDA.

Collins’ amendment drew fierce opposition from key Democrats who argued the rules improve highway safety. Full committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said the rules have helped reduce driver fatigue, and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) urged colleagues to “acknowledge the reality here between driver fatigue, drugs [and] texting.”

“Let’s be honest about this, the roads are not as safe as they should be, and it’s our responsibility to make them safer,” Durbin said.

While the legislation passed the committee, there still are several hurdles before it can become law.

The Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Appropriations bill will head to the floor of the Senate later this month, where it could be amended.

If the bill passes the full Senate with the restart suspension intact, sponsors would have to meet with their House counterparts and reconcile differences between the chambers’ legislative versions.

Then, the measure would need to be included in a final compromise bill, known as a conference report, which each chamber would need to pass. If that happens, the bill goes to the White House, where it would need the president’s signature to become law.

The House has scheduled floor debate on its fiscal 2015 transportation spending bill June 9. Currently, the House version directs FMCSA to offer Congress scientific evidence supporting the benefits of the agency’s restart changes. The agency’s study would need to be submitted within 90 days of the bill’s enactment.

A bill sponsored by Reps. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) and Mike Michaud (D-Maine) would require FMCSA to conduct an extensive review of its restart rules FMCSA did not respond to multiple requests by Transport Topics seeking comment.

Overall, the Senate’s $54.4 billion transportation spending legislation, reported to the floor by a vote of 29-1, exceeds the Obama administration’s request of $51 million and the fiscal 2014 level of $50.8 billion.

Bill sponsors praised the measure but noted it lacked a funding solution for the rapidly depleting Highway Trust Fund account.

The bill would provide $40.3 billion for federal-aid highway programs that would be contingent on a funding system that would have to be authorized by Senate tax and policy writers. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the committee’s top transportation writer, said she is hopeful Congress will not let the fund become insolvent.

According to recent DOT projections, the fund will run out of money as early as late July. House and Senate transportation leaders have yet to agree on a funding system to avoid a shortfall.

The Senate bill would provide $550 million next year to the popular Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grant program. While that sum is slightly less than this year’s total of $600 million, it is far above the $100 million in the House version.

The administration is requesting $1.25 billion for the program in fiscal 2015.

The bill also would provide $834 million for the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency and $104 million for the National Transportation Safety Board.