The Senate Commerce Committee pressed witnesses on a variety of issues Wednesday during a hearing about surface transportation reauthorization.
A proposed rule designed to update hours-of-service guidelines for truckers is “in the final stages of review,” Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) Administrator Raymond Martinez told the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday.
“As you know, it’s a process iterative with the Office of Management and Budget, but I really do believe we are in the very final stages of that process,” Martinez (pictured above) said in response to a question from Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., during the hearing about surface transportation reauthorization. “I’m hopeful that it will be in short order.”
The FMCSA’s proposed rule on hours-of-service (HOS) changes was delayed from its June 7 release date.
Last August, the agency published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking seeking comments on short-haul HOS limits, an exception for adverse driving conditions, the 30-minute rest break provision and the allowance of sleeper-berth users to divide off-duty time into two separate periods. The notice received more than 5,200 comments and the FMCSA held five listening sessions with stakeholders “concerning potential changes to the areas discussed in the notice,” Martinez said in his opening statement.
Fischer was one of several lawmakers who asked Martinez about flexibility within the proposed rule, especially in the agriculture and livestock industries. The agency head said he believed the HOS changes “will apply across the board,” but the FMCSA has prepared an advance notice of proposed rulemaking to seek comment on the definition of an agricultural commodity.
“We have been fully engaged with the industry representatives here in Washington and also with our colleagues over at the Department of Agriculture to make sure that we are sensitive to the specific needs of those in the agriculture community and specifically the livestock community,” he said in response to a question from Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.
Senators also pressed Martinez about allowing 18- to 20-year-old commercial truck drivers to operate in interstate commerce. Currently, drivers between those ages can only operate in intrastate commerce.
“In large geographic states like Florida, California, New York … you can drive all over the state, but you can’t cross state borders. It makes you scratch your head,” Martinez responded to a question from Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla. “The rule has been in place since the 1930s. It deserves a good hard look now because things have changed. We have new technologies that may be able to monitor and tell us not all drivers under 21 are the same.”
FMCSA recently announced it is taking applications for a pilot program to permit drivers 18 to 20 years old who possess the U.S. military equivalent of a commercial driver’s license to operate large trucks in interstate commerce. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. — who introduced the DRIVE Safe Act earlier this year with Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind. — raised concerns about getting accurate information in the pilot program due to the military requirement.
Martinez said people in the National Guard and the reserves could be under 21 and eligible for the pilot program, for which he hopes to have at least 200 participants.
“In addition to that, we do have a request out for more information from stakeholders if we were going to broaden that beyond those who have served in the military to see what we should be looking at,” he said.
Both the Owner-Operator Independent Driver Association and Teamsters, the country’s largest trucking union, have voiced opposition to the non-military program. The American Trucking Associations, however, supported expanding the pilot program.
Martinez also gave a recommendation on how to expand the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, the surface transportation reauthorization bill signed into law in December 2015 that is set to expire Sept. 30, 2020. He said FMCSA proposes to conduct an updated large crash causation study. The previous study conducted by FMCSA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration took place between 2001 and 2003, he said.
“A new study will help the FMCSA identify factors that may contribute to the growth in fatal large truck crashes,” Martinez said. “Analyzing these factors will drive new initiatives to reduce crashes on our nation’s roadways.”
In her opening remarks, Ranking Member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., spoke of the importance grant program funding in the FAST Act was for multimodal freight infrastructure. Cantwell said he shopes Congress will “look to increase the levels of funding to meet the strong demand for these programs” in FAST Act reauthorization.
“Regardless of where you grow or make your product, whether it’s in the heartland or on the coast, a world-class port system is good for business. … But right now we are falling behind,” she said in her opening remarks. “If we don’t modernize our ports, companies and countries all over the world will turn elsewhere. Ports all over America are facing competition from nations that are making robust, long-term investments in infrastructure.”