Thune defends Senate highway bill’s safety provisions

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) defended the safety provisions in the Senate’s massive transportation funding bill, which have come under fire from Democrats in the chamber. 

Democrats have complained about a host of regulatory changes related to transportation safety initiatives included in the Senate’s highway bill, known as the DRIVE Act, including a provision that would extend a federal deadline for railroad companies to install an automated train navigation system known as Positive Train Control. 

Thune said Thursday that most of the nation’s railroad companies have said they will not make the automated train deadline that is currently set for December, whether it is pushed back or not. 

{mosads}“Let’s recognize that commuter rail systems, including New Jersey Transit and Virginia Railway Express, have stated that they will not meet the federal deadline for implementing Positive Train Control technology,” said Thune, who is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. 

“This legislation currently before the Senate would authorize grants and prioritizes loan applications to help commuter railroads deploy this new technology to help address safety issues and get Positive Train Control up and running as soon as possible,” he continued. 

The Senate highway bill would change the mandate for railroad companies to implement the automated train system by Dec. 31 to a requirement that they submit plans by that date for installing the technology in the near future. Railroad companies have complained the original deadline, which was set after a 2008 commuter rail crash in California, is too difficult and expensive to meet

Democrats in the Senate argued provisions in the Senate highway bill like pushing back the automated train deadline will make drivers and train passengers less safe. 

“As I watch this great deliberative body move toward a transportation bill, I sometimes feel as though I am watching an impending trainwreck or a car crash,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said. 

“Because on the issue of safety, this bill reflects a tragic, unfortunate, unforgivable missed opportunity,” he continued. “If we authorize this transportation measure, which is vitally important to the future of our nation and will help drive economic growth and create jobs, we are missing the opportunity to make our roads and rails safer, more reliable and more resilient for our economy and quality of life. We are missing an opportunity in effect to save lives.” 

Among the changes that were left out of the final Senate highway bill other than automated train control deadline is a provision that would allow federal regulators to jail automakers who cover up car defects. The proposal, which follows a series of major auto recalls, would make failing to inform federal regulators about faulty auto parts a crime that is punishable by up to five years in prison. 

Other deleted provisions that have riled Democrats include language that would eliminate a $35 million cap on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s ability to fine automakers who fail to comply with recall regulations and require the installation of a warning system that will warn drivers when their cars have been recalled by manufacturers. 

Thune said Thursday that the Senate highway bill raises the cap on the automaker fines, even if it does not go as far as Democrats have requested. 

“We are doubling this cap to $70 million and conditioning an additional increased authorization for vehicle safety on implementing needed reforms,” he said. “This bill enhances safety.” 

Thune also touted a provision in the highway bill that has been backed by Democrats that would prohibit rental car companies from issuing recalled vehicles to customers. 

“Outside of improving rail safety, we include a proposal, offered as an amendment during committee mark-up by Sen. McCaskill, to ban rental car companies from renting vehicles needing recall repair work,” he said. 

“We also include several provisions to increase consumer awareness of recalls, increase corporate responsibility and improve highway safety efforts in all states,” Thune continued. 

Democrats have threatened to offer amendments to the highway bill to add back the safety measure that were voted down in committee. 

The White House has also said it is monitoring the debate in the Senate about the regulatory provisions of the highway bill. 

“There are concerns that have been raised about some of the safety that have been included in the bill,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. “The Department of Transportation makes the safety of the American traveling public their top priority, so we’re going to obviously take a look at some of the safety provisions that are in here.”  

Tags Auto recalls DRIVE Act Highway bill John Thune MAP-21 Reauthorization Positive train control Richard Blumenthal

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