Appropriators back transportation spending bill with trucking fix

Appropriators back transportation spending bill with trucking fix
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The Senate Appropriations Committee easily advanced a transportation spending bill on Thursday containing a trucking provision safety advocates have been pushing against this week.

In a 30-0 vote, lawmakers reported a measure out of committee that would provide $56.5 billion in discretionary spending to the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and other related agencies in fiscal 2017.

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The figure is $2.9 billion less than the president’s budget request and $827 million less than the current funding level.

The spending bill contains a technical fix to a drafting error made in last year's government spending bill. A provision in that bill said proposed changes to the hours of service rule for truck drivers — which were enacted in 2013 but later suspended — cannot be implemented until the DOT proves the regulation would improve driver health and safety.

But legislators left out essential language clarifying what would happen if the agency fails to find that the rule is beneficial for drivers, which would force the DOT to revert to rules put in place more than a decade ago.

The bill fixes the issue and caps the time truck drivers can spend behind the wheel or on duty at 73 hours per week.

Safety advocates have blasted the new cap, saying it will encourage longer workweeks for truck drivers; they say the trucking industry lobbied heavily for the change.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsDem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick McConnell: Senate to confirm Kavanaugh by Oct. 1 Overnight Health Care: Watchdog finds Tom Price improperly used funds on flights | Ex-Novartis CEO sent drug pricing proposal to Cohen | HHS staffers depart after controversial social media posts MORE (R-Maine), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on transportation and housing, said the new restriction promotes safety for drivers and the public, adding that "this deliberate misinformation is truly unfortunate." Safety advocates claim some truck drivers can work up to 82 hours per week, so a 73-hour cap would ensure that doesn’t happen.

Sen. Barbara MikulskiBarbara Ann MikulskiDems ponder gender politics of 2020 nominee Robert Mueller's forgotten surveillance crime spree Clinton: White House slow-walking Russia sanctions MORE (D-Md.), the panel’s ranking member, praised the committee’s work on the spending bill and a separate funding measure for commerce, justice and science agencies. She pointed out that neither contains any “poison pill” policy riders.

The base bill contains $16.9 billion for the DOT, which is $1.7 billion below the current level. The legislation prioritizes programs to make transportation systems safer, more efficient and reliable, according to a summary.

The Federal-Aid Highway Program would get $44 billion from the Highway Trust Fund, which is consistent with last year’s surface transportation legislation that was signed into law.

Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grants would see a $25 million boost under the bill, up to $525 million in fiscal 2017.

The Federal Aviation Administration would get $16.4 billion, or about $131.6 million more than the current level.

Lawmakers emphasized that the bill would grant $1 billion for the FAA Next Generation Air Transportation Systems and fully fund air traffic control, contract towers and aviation safety oversight facilities.

“This will allow us to continue modernizing our nation’s air traffic control system, as well as fund research for the safe integration of unmanned aircraft systems into our nation’s airspace,” Collins said Thursday.

Officials are currently working to develop a federal framework for regulating unmanned aircraft systems, or drones.

During the markup, senators also adopted a package of seven amendments by unanimous consent, including one condemning the National Transportation Safety Board for participating in a reality television show.