The Transportation Puzzle

The Commerce Committee faces the task of writing safety provisions without full study. And no one is sure where the money will come from.

<p>President Obama wants to complete climate rules for trucks well before he leaves office.</p> (National Journal)

It's the kind of puzzle only Congress could come up with—how do you squeeze five years of policy into 18 months of funding?

The imperfect answer—if there is one—came in the form of MAP-21, the long-term transportation reauthorization bill passed in 2012. But now as Congress prepares another transportation bill, the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is left with the unintended fallout of the short-term solutions of the past.

In the splintered Senate process for drafting transportation bills, Commerce is tasked with writing safety titles for cars and freight carriers. It's not flashy work, such as assigning states how much money they get (the purview of the Environment and Public Works Committee) or closing a funding gap (the Finance Committee), but it does oversee costly and controversial safety rules for truckers and highway agencies.

The need for a new transportation bill is coming up fast—the Highway Trust Fund is set to run dry in May, after being kept afloat by a short-term patch passed last summer that relied on a pension-smoothing gimmick. The relevant committees have said they're trying to nail down funding for a new bill this spring.

Commerce Chairman John Thune says it's time the Senate get back to the stable multiyear bills that used to be the norm, rather than "six-month bills that just put a Band Aid on something."

"Most of the pay-fors that we've come up with for the short-term extensions have been gimmicky things that have, you know, timing shifts, pension-smoothing," Thune told National Journal. "So we keep coming up with this stuff, and I'm like, 'At some point we have to confront this.' "

Short-term bills mean states have less certainty in their funding—and long-term projects can be stalled or canceled altogether. But they've also had a hidden impact, leaving policy reforms half-baked when it's time to consider them again.

For example, MAP-21 required the Transportation Department to conduct a comprehensive study of the safety and efficiency implications of new sizes and configurations of trucks, including those above federal length and weight limits. Those findings would lay the groundwork for updated regulations that could allow bigger trucks on the road, which trucking companies have said could make shipping cheaper and easier.

But that study, due in November, isn't done—the Federal Highway Administration says it is still evaluating the results and drafting technical documents.

Likewise, a provision related to the bolts for trucks is still under review, and two provisions regarding the hours of service for truck operators were suspended until the end of September, pending more study by the Transportation Department. Reforms from other committees related to transparency in highway spending also haven't been implemented in full.

Now a new bill is coming due while those reforms are still up in the air, and aides and stakeholders say it could be less robust than hoped.

"When you've got these eclectic, short-term bills, the safety stuff really suffers," said Bradley Sant, senior vice president of safety and education for the American Road and Transit Builders Association. "There's nothing that gives us particular heartburn, but there's a lot of reform that deals with states' ability to amass, record, and report back data that's just not done."

Whether a long-term bill is actually in the cards depends on the eternal question of how to pay for it. The 18.4-cent per gallon federal gas tax hasn't been boosted since 1993 and is not indexed to inflation. The Highway Trust Fund will dry up in May, and DOT has warned that $124 billion is necessary over the next six years just to keep infrastructure at the status quo.

The plummet in gas prices has made legislators more amenable to discussing a gas-tax increase (conservatives prefer to call it a "user fee"), although other proposals include everything from repatriating money from business being done overseas to implementing a carbon tax to bridge the shortfall.

It'll be up to the Finance Committee to come up with the money, while Energy and Public Works will draft the highway title that traditionally is the base of the Senate's bill. Commerce and the Banking Committee, which handles mass transit, work on their titles separately and join them together on the floor (besides the safety agencies, Commerce also writes language related to transport of hazardous materials and has oversight of the Office of the DOT Secretary).

Whether all of those pieces can come together by May remains to be seen—the crowded calendar and perilous funding debates mean another short-term bill is likely to give legislators more time to craft a full bill. That might have the added benefit of giving the safety provisions more time to marinate.

The committee will have plenty of other transportation provisions on its plate as well. The Federal Aviation Administration's authorization is due to expire in September, teeing up a legislative effort that's expected to include plenty of first-time discussion on how to regulate unmanned aircraft, or drones, and a flight management system known as NextGen. It's expected that the committee could also explore some work on passenger rail, especially since the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee this month moved a bipartisan rail-overhaul bill.

Truckers have long complained about implications of the federal Compliance, Safety, Accountability program, a report card of sorts that has become a de facto safety program. Chris Spear, senior vice president for the American Trucking Association, said that while companies "conceptually" like CSA, they've taken issue with how it defines accidents and how it can be used by operators to choose a company to contract with.

The committee has vowed to look at reforming the program, with the preference to move everything in the reauthorization bill. Which, of course, is no easy task if things keep going the way they have been.

"The longer they put this off, the harder it is," Sant said. "There is no more short-term solution. You have to have a long-term proposal."