Why We Need A Highway Bill

This year Congress passed yet another short-term highway bill, which will provide funding for the federal-aid highway and bridge program only through May 31, 2015. Thus the new Congress must take up this issue again and pass legislation before June 1, 2015.

Typically, Congress would pass a five- or six-year bill authorizing spending on the programs (and the taxes to support the spending) over that period. Of course, the primary taxes supporting the highway program are federal gasoline and diesel fuel taxes; these taxes have not been increased since 1984. The hurdle in getting a new multiyear bill is whether to increase the federal fuel tax or find some other revenue mechanism to make up the growing shortfall in funding needed to sustain new construction and maintenance for the highway and bridge program.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Highway Trust Fund is nearing insolvency. Earlier this year, Congress authorized a $10.8 billion transfer of funds from general revenues into the Highway Trust Fund. That was a one-year stopgap measure and does not address the need for additional funds to repair and restore our deteriorating infrastructure in the future. Additionally, few in Congress have shown the political courage to support any new fuel tax (or a new tax on vehicle miles driven) dedicated to the national highway and bridge program. It is considered political suicide to even propose such a large scale tax increase, even though the price of gasoline and diesel fuel has fallen almost by half over the past four years.

As a result, Congress continues to look at accounting gimmicks and other one-time revenue adjustments to buttress the Highway Trust Fund. It is unlikely that they will be able to muster the votes next year for a long-term funding solution, and our pavement will continue to crumble as Congress uses the current spending levels as the basis for the new bill.

But that is not the only reason we need Congress to pass a long-term highway bill. In addition to authorizing infrastructure spending and taxes, a comprehensive highway bill usually includes titles authorizing the U.S. Department of Transportation’s regulatory programs relating to the transportation of hazardous materials by commercial motor vehicle. These are regulations that affect every GAWDA member that delivers products in their trucks.

In its role as a co-equal branch of the federal government, Congress sits as an overseer of the executive branch’s actions. Thus in the highway bill, Congress will include certain provisions for DOT to implement. This might include directives for new regulations, mandates to develop, amend or withdraw requirements, and sometimes an actual prohibition on regulating in a particular area. This legislative oversight gives the regulated industry additional leverage in dealing with DOT. Instead of just bringing issues before the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration or the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and hoping we get a satisfactory response, we can also go to Congress and ask for insertions into the highway bill that will affect DOT’s authority to impose certain requirements on the industry.

This approach can affect issues like driver hours of service, minimum liability insurance requirements, electronic logging device rules, the standards and procedures in applying for hazmat special permits or approvals, fees for hazmat shipper or carrier registration or other proceedings, driver medical qualifications, carrier safety fitness standards and many others.
Members of Congress want to hear your thoughts on these matters; the highway bill gives them a legislative vehicle to address your concerns and those of similarly regulated companies. Without a long-term highway bill, though, we miss this opportunity to provide input to direct and moderate DOT’s regulatory program. When Congress abdicates its responsibility to pass much-needed legislation due to short-term political fears, it gives the executive branch more authority to regulate without congressional oversight.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
Richard P. Schweitzer, Esq. Meet the Author
GAWDA’s Government Affairs and Human Resources Legal Consultant Rick Schweitzer is president of Richard P. Schweitzer, PLLC in Washington, D.C. He is also GAWDA’s general counsel. Members can reach him at 202-223-3040 and rpschweitzer@rpslegal.com.