The House has passed a six-year, $325-billion transportation bill after votes on nearly 100 amendments including one that rejected a measure some said would have revamped weight limits on over-the-road trucks that have been in place since 1982.
The bill now goes to a conference committee that will seek to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, possibly bringing a compromise measure back to both floors of Congress before the current legislation expires on Nov. 20.
The lengthy voting on the amendments, which finally ended with the House passing the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015 by a vote of 363-64 on Thursday (Nov. 5) led to the issuing of some angry statements by farm organizations that supported changes to the transportation bill.
“The National Cattleman’s Beef Association is greatly disappointed in the members of Congress who opposed modernizing America’s transportation laws,” said NCBA President Phillip Ellis after they voted against an amendment offered by Florida Rep. Tom Rooney to increase the weight limit for trucks hauling livestock to 95,000 pounds.
“Without the inclusion of Rep. Rooney’s amendment, Rep. Reid Ribble’s amendment or language to address the mandatory 30-minute rest period rule, there is nothing to support in H.R. 22 Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act, and NCBA strongly opposes its passage.”
Earlier, more than 70 food and agriculture organizations had asked Congress to pass the Safe, Flexible and Efficient Trucking Act (H.R. 3488), offered by Rep. Ribble, as an amendment to the highway reauthorization legislation.
Increase in weight limits
The groups – which range from the American Farm Bureau Federation to the National Farmers Union to the NCBA – sent a letter to members of Congress urging them to include the SAFE Trucking bill in the highway measure.
“In the agriculture and food industries, our farms and businesses are growing and making products more resourcefully, but outdated federal transportation rules force trucks to leave the farm and our plants when they are partly empty,” the letter signed by the organizations said.
“By giving states the option to raise the federal gross vehicle weight limit from 80,000 pounds to 91,000 pounds for trucks equipped with six axles rather than the typical five, the SAFE Trucking Act would safely modernize truck shipments on interstate highways by reducing the number of trucks needed to move our commodities and products through better utilization of existing capacity.”
In its most recent “Comprehensive Truck Size and Weight Study,” the U.S. Department of Transportation found that six-axle trucks can safely weigh up to 91,000 pounds—the configuration allowable under the SAFE Trucking Act—while yielding significant truckload reductions, pavement wear savings and environmental efficiency benefits without diverting significant freight from rail, the letter noted.
The U.S. DOT says the configuration is compliant with the federal bridge formula, and that wide use of the SAFE Trucking Act configuration would not cause any increase in one-time rehabilitation costs for Interstate bridges. the SAFE Trucking Act enables the U.S. DOT to require additional safety equipment for these vehicles before states can put these trucks to work.
The House rejected Ribble's offering of the SAFE Trucking Act, 187 to 236.
Other farm organizations seemed to be ready to move on after the House passed the transportation bill, which was extended to six years instead of three and increased by $40 billion above the original funding provided.
Nov. 20 funding deadline
The National Corn Growers Association thanked the House for its passage and urged House and Senate conferees to reconcile their respective transportation bills and send it to the White House for signature, before federal transportation funding expires on November 20.
“On behalf of America’s farmers and ranchers, thank you to the House for passing this important legislation,” said NCGA President Chip Bowling, a farmer from Maryland. “Up to 80 percent of America’s corn crop is trucked to market, so this issue affects all of us. Safe roads and bridges allow us to get our products to market quickly, safely and efficiently.
“When roads and bridges aren’t properly maintained, it’s not just a nuisance – it puts our safety at risk and hurts our bottom lines.”
Bowling also alluded to the SAFE Trucking Act’s rejection. This bipartisan amendment, which was sponsored by Reps. Ribble, Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., David Rouzer, R-N.C., and Collin Peterson, D-Minn., saying it would have improved the efficiency of America’s food supply chain by modernizing truck weight limits.
“The SAFE Trucking Act would have helped farmers get their product to market more efficiently. While we are disappointed that this amendment was defeated, we are happy to see Congress moving forward on long-term highway funding,” said Bowling.
The National Grain and Feed Association also applauded the passage of the transportation bill, noting the House had addressed a priority for the NGFA by including language to extend the deadline for rail carriers to install positive train control (PTC) technology for three years - to Dec. 31, 2018.
Continue the fight
“However, the NGFA will continue to advocate for provisions not included in the six-year bill,” said NGFA President Randy Gordon. “For instance, the association supported the Safe, Flexible, and Efficient Trucking Act that would have allowed trucks with six axles to transport up to 91,000 pounds on Interstate highways. The federal weight limit for Interstate highways has been set at 80,000 pounds since 1982.”
“Federal highway truck weight limits currently are lower than most state road weight limits, and this inconsistency presents obstacles to efficient movement of U.S. grains,” said NGFA Director of Economics and Government Affairs Max Fisher. “Our organization, as well as the rest of the coalition that supports the amendment, is evaluating how to proceed in our efforts to update truck weight limits on Interstate highways.”
The NGFA joined several other agricultural organizations in sending a letter to House members this week outlining several prioritized transportation provisions. These include decreasing the commercial driver's license age for interstate transit through a proposed pilot program and collecting data on key port performance metrics.
For more on this legislation, visit https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/114/hr3763.