House panel clears six-year highway bill
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 22, 2015 - The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved a multiyear bill to fund the federal highway system, but enacting the long-term legislation before next week's deadline is unlikely.
The bill (H.R. 3763) passed in a voice vote, clearing the way for floor action on a long-term bill and a conference with the Senate, which passed a six-year bill earlier this year. Overall, the sentiment of the committee was that the legislation isn't perfect, but is a good start.
“I'm proud that we were able to work together and find common ground” on the bill said committee chair and Pennsylvania Republican Bill Shuster. His ranking member, Democrat Peter DeFazio of Oregon, said the bill “gives predictability” to states and other end-users of the program.
“Obviously, I want higher funding levels, and that will continue to be a work in progress,” DeFazio said.
The bill includes a three-year delay in the implementation of positive train control, which is called for by the end of the year. PTC - a safety program that allows trains to be stopped remotely - enjoys bipartisan support, but railroad companies are doubtful they will be able to meet the current deadline to get PTC installed. At the markup, California Republican Jeff Denham said the bill will make sure PTC is implemented “as quickly and as safely as possible.”
“Every major freight railroad in America, in addition to Chicago METRA, New York MTA, and Amtrak, have announced they will be forced to shut down operations without an extension to this important PTC mandate,” said Denham, who chairs the panel's subcommittee on railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials.
“We've worked in a bipartisan manner with our Senate counterparts to meld their language with ours, and believe that this revised language will ensure PTC gets done as quick as possible,” he continued.
DeFazio described the PTC implementation stay as a three-year delay with “a detailed benchmark plan. People will be tracked so we won't get to the point like we did here” and different carriers are “all over the map” in the implementation process, he said.
The bill lacks a way to pay for itself, and after the markup, Shuster told reporters he doesn't want to move the bill the floor without a revenue provision, or title. He said he believes the House Ways and Means Committee, particularly Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is working on a way to add that title to the bill.
Many amendments were proposed in the five-hour markup, but most were withdrawn and may be brought up for a vote on the floor. Among those was an amendment from Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, that would have provided a diesel fuel exemption from hazmat regulations for producers and custom harvesters.
An amendment allowing states to set higher truck weights for milk-hauling trucks passed by voice vote. States electing to provide this exception would allow those trucks to travel at weights higher than currently allowed by the Interstate Highway System. In a statement, National Milk Producers Federation President and CEO Jim Mulhern said the amendment “recognizes the specific challenges in transporting milk and allows states to ensure that milk is delivered in a timely fashion while adhering to all transportation and food safety standards.”
The potential for long-term stability is welcome news for many that rely on the federal highway system. The program has received a short-term extension more than 30 times, and in a statement, National Grain and Feed Association President Randy Gordon said the certainty that could be provided by a multiyear bill “is critical to all sectors of U.S. agriculture and their ability to be a competitive supplier in serving domestic and international markets, as well as to the economic well-being of the entire country."
Shuster told reporters that he isn't sure of an exact timeline for bringing the bill to the floor - he hoped to address it in the next week or two - but did say he wanted to move the bill “in short order.” He said whatever comes to the floor will also likely include a short-term extension, giving both chambers time to go to conference over their legislation. The current short-term funding expires at the end of the month.
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