WASHINGTON, May 9, 2012- A congressional conference committee began deliberations yesterday to find a compromise between House and Senate surface transportation bills. Currently, federal transportation programs are funded only through June 30 due to several short-term extension enacted since September 30, the most recent coming in a vote last month.

Tuesday’s session allowed the 47 conferees an opportunity to give opening statements. Despite predictions the conference committee is unlikely to reach agreement, the House-Senate panel’s chair, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., promised House members that she will “work with you to improve the Senate bill . . . We’re going to work together until we get this done.”

Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) told Agri-Pulse he would be a voice for rural interests on the conference committee and specifically emphasized the importance of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund yesterday.

“My district has more Mississippi River frontage than any other district in the country,” Crawford said. “Moneys from the trust fund should be used for harbor maintenance projects like dredging. Dredging along the Mississippi River is essential for farmers to get their goods to market and will be a priority for me on the committee.”

“I’m optimistic that we’re going to get a conference report out of it,” he added, when discussing the potential outcome of the committee deliberations. “I’m hoping that it’s longer term and provides a certain level of certainty.”

Streamlining bureaucracy and cutting down the time it takes to complete transportation projects is important to Crawford. He said the House measure attempts to take cut project times in half. For example, an infrastructure project that would typically take 15 years to complete could be reduced to a timeline of seven years. 

“That cuts costs considerably and speeds up delivery of projects,” he said. “We want to condense some of the bureaucratic reviews and make it easier for highway contractors get job the done quicker.”

He noted that an important part of the negotiations will be the Keystone XL Pipeline provision, which is included the House transportation measure and expected to be a key sticking point in the deliberations. 

Additional provisions for railroads are included in the Senate bill, S. 1813. Consumer Union for Rail Equity (CURE) outlined the rail sections of the bill below:

Section 36402 – The Surface Transportation Board (STB) must post a report on the progress of pending formal and  informal complaints every three months;
Section 36403 - Maximum relief in "simplified" rate procedures increased to  $1.5 million in "three benchmark" cases and to $10 million  for "simplified stand alone cost" cases; the STB also is directed to periodically review and revise maximum relief levels;
Section 36404 - Establishes time lines for rate cases;
Section 36405 - Within 180 days of enactment, the STB must initiate a study to provide further guidance on how it will apply its revenue adequacy pricing constraint;
Section 36406 - starting 60 days after enactment, the STB must provide quarterly reports to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on status of unfinished regulatory proceedings; and
Section 36407 - within 180 days of enactment, STB must consult with the Office of Personnel Management regarding the STB workforce: size and deployment.

Several agriculture groups support the rail provisions of the Senate bill, S. 1813, including establishing a timeline for rate cases taken to the Surface Transportation Board (STB), requiring the STB to issue quarterly reports of complaints received, and changing the maximum relief possible for shippers in “simplified” rate procedures.

“These freight rail provisions are modest steps that we believe would contribute to a better balance between shipper and carrier interests in rail policy deliberations,” the groups said in a letter sent Monday to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. For a copy of the letter, click HERE.

In a separate letter, the same agricultural groups expressed support the Realize America’s Maritime Promise (RAMP) Act in the House-passed measure that Crawford supports.

“U.S. ports, waterways and harbors are in desperate need of maintenance and dredging in order to keep channels open for commerce,” state the organizations.

The RAMP Act ensures that the money in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is appropriately used for harbor operations and maintenance, an important provision, noted Crawford, because of the ongoing expansion of the Panama Canal and the need for larger domestic ports. For a copy of the organizations' letter, click HERE.

The agricultural organizations supporting the rail and harbor provisions include the Agricultural Retailers Association, American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Chicken Council, National Corn Growers Association, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, National Grain and Feed Association, National Oilseed Processors Association, National Turkey Federation, The Fertilizer Instituteand the USA Rice Federation.


For more news, go to www.agri-pulse.com