Five transportation issues to watch in the lame duck

Five transportation issues to watch in the lame duck
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Transportation advocates are excited by the prospect of an infrastructure package passing under President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCongress, Trump need a united front to face down Iran Perez, Ellison start multistate ‘turnaround tour’ for Dems Overnight Cybersecurity: House Intel chair says surveillance collected on Trump transition team MORE next year, but there are a number of other transportation issues that could see action during the lame duck session of Congress.

Although funding the government is the only “must-pass” item on the to-do list, lawmakers are also expected to finalize negotiations on emergency aid for the water crisis in Flint, Mich.

And as the Obama administration’s final days wind down, there could be a flurry of regulatory action on drones and self-driving cars.

Here are five transportation areas to watch in the remaining months of 2016.

Flint aid

Chief on the list of priorities for transportation leaders is hammering out differences between the House and Senate-passed versions of a waterways bill. 

Both measures included funding for lead-contaminated communities like Flint, but the House bill contained $50 million less than the Senate legislation and only authorized the funds, as opposed to actually appropriating the dollars.

A Republican aide for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said the relevant panels from both chambers have been meeting regularly, and that the goal is to get the measure over the finish line this year.

Lawmakers may be particularly eager to resolve the issue before government funding runs out next month, since a lack of Flint funding in a previous stop-gap spending bill nearly took the government to the brink of a shutdown in September. 

Self-driving cars 

Driverless cars have been on lawmakers’ radar for a while. But the issue has been heating up on Capitol Hill since the administration unveiled new driverless car guidelines and ride-hailing firms like Uber began testing semi-driverless cars on the streets.

There are already two congressional hearings on autonomous vehicles planned for this week. An Energy and Commerce subcommittee will hear from the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on Tuesday, while Senate appropriators will examine the federal government’s role in driverless cars on Wednesday.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) is expected to issue a rule by the end of this year requiring all new cars to have vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) safety signaling technology, in which cars can send wireless signals to each other and avoid crashes.

The administration may also issue a decision on whether to open up a portion of an unlicensed spectrum band for wireless devices. The band is currently set aside for highway auto-safety initiatives, such as V2V technology. 

TSA funding 

Lawmakers must keep the government lights on past Dec. 9. If Congress decides not to pursue another continuing resolution (CR), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) could see some big budget changes.

Appropriators in the House and Senate are at odds over funding levels for the oft-criticized agency.

The House’s fiscal 2017 Homeland Security spending bill would provide $7.6 billion for the TSA — $163 million above current levels. But under the Senate version, the TSA is due for a $228 million bump.

The proposals came after airports around the country were experiencing massive security lines this spring, but TSA officials have since gotten the crisis under control.

The now-manageable lines may cause some lawmakers to pursue smaller funding levels, while others are likely to warn that the crisis could return if the agency is underfunded. 

Drone rules

The White House paved the way for commercial drone users this summer, issuing the first-ever rule permitting small, routine drone use. But the regulation still contains numerous restrictions. 

Drone pilots must apply for a special exemption if they want to fly at night, over people or out of the visual line of sight.

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), however, has said that the agency is working to release a new rule by the end of this year that will allow drone flights over crowds.

Trucking fix

Even if lawmakers pursue a clean spending bill, one issue that may resurface as a potential “anomaly” to the CR is a trucking provision.

The language has been billed by Republicans as a “technical fix” to a drafting error made in last year's omnibus 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.

A trucking provision tucked into a Senate appropriations bill earlier this year fixes the issue, as well as caps the time truck drivers can spend behind the wheel or on duty at 73 hours per week.

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