Congress Passes Short-Term Highway Patch

Congress on July 30 passed a stopgap three-month measure to finance federal highway and transportation projects. The measure is expected to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent through December.

Congress on July 30 passed a stopgap three-month measure to finance federal highway and transportation projects. The measure is expected to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent through December.

The short-term measure is financed primarily through enhanced enforcement of existing tax laws.

The Senate on July 30 also passed a long-term highway bill reauthorizing highway and transit programs for six years. Senate lawmakers had been pushing for a long-term transportation bill, but House leadership refused to take up the plan, departing for their August recess before the Senate approved its six-year, $350 billion bill.

The short-term extension, which President Obama has signed, provides House lawmakers more time to develop their own long-term bill. Once that occurs, the two chambers will need to work out the differences between their respective measures. This will be a difficult task, not only because of differing perspectives as to how the measure should be funded, but also in light of a crowded congressional calendar in the fall.

Included in the three-month extension enacted last week is language that would ensure that excise taxes on liquefied natural gas, compressed natural gas and propane for highway use are levied at a rate consistent with their energy output relative to diesel and gasoline. That provision, which as a practical matter will lower the taxes paid on CNG and LNG products, takes effect on Jan 1, 2016.

The Senate's long-term measure, which will serve as the starting point for negotiations on a long-term Highway Bill, largely contains the same language that the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed in June. This includes a provision that would amend the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program (ISRRPP), which allows three states to seek tolling authority to fund maintenance on interstate highways, and contains a weight exemption for natural gas trucks.

The DRIVE act amends the ISRRPP to require those states awarded tolling authority under the program to relinquish their slot if they fail to implement tolls within a certain timeframe. It also would allow states to divert tolling revenue collected under the program to any federally funded infrastructure project once the tolled lanes have been maintained.

The legislation also includes a natural gas weight exemption for trucks powered by natural gas engines, which are heavier than diesel engines. The measure would provide an exemption equal to the weight of the natural gas fueling system, relative to the weight of a comparable diesel tank and fueling system.

The measure also includes substantial changes to trucking industry oversight. The measure takes several steps aimed at improving the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) data quality, including requiring FMCSA to conduct a comprehensive study of the CSA program as well as its data and scoring. It also would remove public scores until a corrective action plan has been published and implemented.

Additionally, the bill would allow hair testing as a method of satisfying drug testing requirements and directs FMCSA to establish a six-year pilot program to allow states to “enter into interstate compacts to allow for appropriately licensed drivers between the ages of 18 and 21 to travel in interstate commerce.”

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