WASHINGTON, (Aug. 15, 2005) — It took 11 extensions of the old law and almost two years of haggling, but US Congress passed a $286.45 billion highway reauthorization bill, increasing road and safety funding by 30 percent over the current program.
The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) was signed into law by President Bush at a Caterpillar factory in Montgomery, Ill.
While it affects US transportation policy, some Canadian truckers should pay attention. That’s because the legislation makes several important changes in the requirement that hazardous materials drivers clear a security background check including, as expected, extending the requirement to Canadian and Mexican hazmat drivers.
Furthermore, the law does not include the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s bid to codify the hours of service rules as they are now written.
As for the hazmat check for foreign drivers, the check must be “similar” to the US check. The Transportation Security Administration has six months to come up with the program, and may extend that deadline for up to another six months.
Until now, employers in the US have been out of the information loop — it has been up to the driver to inform his carrier company that he has not cleared his background check. Under the new law, however, the TSA must develop a process for notifying employers if a driver fails to clear the check.
Congress also wants to eliminate redundant background checks. The law orders TSA to pass a rule under which a driver who clears the check automatically clears any other federal transportation check that is equivalent or less stringent.
Industry complaints about bottlenecks in the fingerprinting process evidently got congressional attention. TSA must report on the “adequacy” of fingerprinting locations and other issues. A proposal to scale back the list of hazmats covered by the requirement to only the most dangerous commodities did not make it into the bill, although it may surface in other legislation later this year.
The FMCSA hoped Congress would solidify into law the new HOS rules that took effect January 2004. The intent was to negate a court finding that the rules are illegal, and bring some stability to the current situation. In the wake of last year’s court finding, the agency has been working on a rewrite that is due by the end of September. The rewrite, which is now being reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget, may make the rules more restrictive, or it may set the stage for more legal action. In either case, the industry is in for more uncertainty.
Congress also rejected another major change: to allow drivers to take their two-hour breaks off the clock, in effect extending the 14-hour day to 16 hours. It also amends the agricultural driver exemption by changing the definition of agricultural commodities to include livestock, food, feed, fiber and other farm products.
The transportation bill also contained an offering to biodiesel proponents, providing $8 million for biodiesel research to be led by the National Biodiesel Board. The funding will give the biodiesel industry an opportunity to incorporate the fuel for testing into new EPA-mandated diesel engines that are said to significantly cut emissions when they’re introduced for 2007.
— with files by Oliver Patton, Washington Correspondent