Lawmakers to tackle duration of highway spending bill, fuel surcharges
As Congress debates what programs to include in the reauthorization of the $284 billion surface transportation bill, one of the unsettled points among lawmakers is whether to start the clock on the six-year spending program when the legislation finally passes or when the previous spending blueprint expired 18 months ago, leaving 4.5 years on the current cycle, said Rep. Thomas Petri, R-Wis., vice chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Federal money that goes to state transportation departments has been frozen at levels set in the previous six-year spending plan that expired in the fall of 2003, leaving many road, rail and intermodal projects on hold because state officials are wary of committing funds to new projects until they are officially approved. Congress has passed six extensions of the $218 billion Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century in lieu of a new bill.
Much of the delay has involved wrangling about the size of the spending plan, with some lawmakers originally pushing for up to $375 billion to support transportation projects, many in their own districts and states. The Bush administration had proposed about $255 billion, but agreed in its 2006 budget proposal to raise the limit to $284 billion.
The Senate is preparing its version of the bill.
Petri told the National Industrial Transportation League’s Spring Policy Forum Tuesday that a $284 billion bill would be the equivalent of a $318 billion spending plan if spread out over 4.5 years instead of six years, according to people who heard his address.
Some shippers said they favored the flexibility of a shorter plan because rapidly changing infrastructure demands would require a fresh evaluation of priorities and extra resources anyway.
Petri also said he was confident that a provision inserted in the House version mandating that shippers pay fuel surcharges would be eliminated during a House-Senate conference on a final version of the bill. He said the provision was slipped in during editing of the bill unbeknownst to many members. The legislation requires truckload motor carriers, truck brokers and freight forwarders to implement fuel surcharges when diesel prices rise 5 cents above a $1.10 per gallon benchmark and pass on the fees to the truckers who actually purchase the fuel for their trucks. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration would be tasked to enforce the law.
The mandatory fuel surcharge has been pushed for several years by the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents individual truck drivers who act as independent contractors for trucking companies. Smaller truckers are especially impacted by the steep rise in diesel fuel prices to more than $2.30 per gallon in some parts of the country and say their agents often do not share the surcharge proceeds with them.
“We are very much opposed to the mandatory fuel surcharge,” NIT League President John Ficker told Shippers’ NewsWire. “We think it’s a step backward in having the government involved in the carrier-shipper relationship. That’s what deregulation was supposed to do.”
A fuel surcharge “is the last thing I want to regulate,” FMCSA Administrator Annette Sandberg, told NIT League members Monday. “That’s best accomplished through the marketplace.”
The Department of Transportation is urging the Senate to drop the mandatory fuel surcharge from the final bill, she said.