WASHINGTON—Congress is racing toward a Friday deadline to renew the law that pays for national transportation programs, and lobbyists trying to shape the legislation are in a frenzy.
Among the issues: the length of trucks allowed on roads, whether recalled used cars must be repaired before they can be sold and how to pay for bridges and highways.
The bill is the lobbyists’ best shot in years at getting policies their clients’ like or blocking regulations they don’t.
Congress hopes to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, and send a compromise to President Barack Obama before the government’s authority to process highway and transit aid payments to states expires.
Customs and Security Fees
Airlines are trying to scuttle a plan that would use customs and security fees shouldered by passengers to pay for roads and other surface transportation projects. Airlines for America, an industry trade association, says it’s wrong to ask travelers to pay for anything unrelated to air travel.
The House killed a proposal, opposed by the banking industry, that would have helped pay for the transportation bill by cutting government dividends to large banks. Instead, the measure would transfer $59 billion over 10 years from a Federal Reserve account to the Treasury. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) have said the transfer is sleight of hand that actually raises no new money. Banks are lobbying to keep the bill as it is.
More Money vs. More Years
Some 40 industry trade groups and labor unions want congressional leaders to spend that newfound Federal Reserve money faster to boost annual transportation spending, even if it means there won’t be enough to pay for a full six years of transportation programs.
Northeastern lawmakers are angered by a proposal that would eliminate an annual $263 million transit program benefiting seven states with half the nation’s transit riders—Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. The provision would spread the money to all states through competitive grants for bus programs. The lawmakers say the change undermines an understanding with the bill’s sponsors that the measure would not hurt transit funding.
Trial lawyers want to increase the $200 million cap on damage payments in passenger rail accidents, citing the Amtrak crash in Philadelphia in May that killed eight people and injured about 200. According to the American Association for Justice, damage awards to victims are expected to exceed the cap, which was set in 1997. The Senate version of the bill would raise the cap to $295 million, but there’s no increase in the House bill.
Bigger Big Rigs
The trucking industry, along with FedEx and UPS, are pushing for a federal mandate that would force all states to allow trucks with extra-long double trailers on interstate highways. The issue wasn’t raised in either the House or Senate bills. Safety advocates worry that negotiators will add such a mandate to a final version.
Used car dealers are feuding with safety advocates over whether the dealers should have to repair recalled vehicles before selling them. A provision would require rental car companies to make repairs before renting vehicles, but used-car dealers are not included. Also, the House bill would let new-car dealers loan cars to customers without making repairs. New-car dealers already must repair vehicles before selling them.
Safety advocates object to many proposals, among them one that would reduce the age for interstate truck drivers from 21 to 18 in some cases. They also want more money for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) following two years of record vehicle recalls for safety defects, including faulty General Motor ignition switches linked to 124 deaths. The House bill cuts NHTSA’s money despite congressional testimony that the agency lacks enough investigators to pursue all the information it receives on possible defects.
The union representing IRS employees opposes letting the IRS use private debt-collection agencies to recover overdue taxes in low-priority cases the agency otherwise would not pursue. This provision would raise an estimated $5 billion over 10 years to help pay for transportation programs. Opponents point out that the last time collection agencies were used, during President George W. Bush’s administration, they wound up costing the government more money than they collected.
The oil industry is battling a plan that would help pay for transportation programs by selling 101 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, beginning in 2018. The provision assumes the oil can be sold for $89 a barrel, about twice the current price, to raise $9.1 billion over eight years.