Highway to nowhere

Original highway bill marred by partisanship,minimum insurance amendment

August-September 2020

Mark Schremmer

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The bill had such promise.

Back in early June, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio released the text of a highway bill that would authorize nearly $500 billion over five years to tackle the nation’s infrastructure needs.

The original version of the INVEST in America Act included several trucker-friendly provisions and received support from the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

OOIDA specifically touted provisions for increased funding for highway construction, $250 million for truck parking projects, new restrictions on tolling, limits to excessive detention time and predatory lease-to-own schemes, and further analysis on H-1B visa use within the trucking industry.

The Association also was pleased that the original bill didn’t include “anti-trucker” provisions, such as mandates for speed limiters or side underride guards, increases to weight limits or the minimum insurance requirements, and the DRIVE-Safe Act, which would move toward allowing 18-year-olds to operate a commercial motor vehicle in interstate commerce.

But the good times didn’t last long.

By June 17, OOIDA withdrew its support from the highway bill because of an amendment that would more than double the minimum insurance requirement for motor carriers. By the time the month was over, the highway bill was rolled into a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package and had been declared dead on arrival by Senate Republicans.

The month served as quite the roller coaster, but as press time rolled around in mid-July, Congress appeared no closer to passing a highway bill. The current surface transportation authorization expires Sept. 30.

INVEST in America Act

The Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation in America Act was a $494 billion investment that would use $319 billion for highway projects, with the rest going toward transit, vehicle safety, and rail.

“The bulk of our nation’s infrastructure – our roads, bridges, public transit and rail systems, the things that hundreds of millions of American families and businesses rely on every single day – is not only badly outdated. In many places it’s downright dangerous and holding our economy back,” DeFazio said in a news release.

While the bill didn’t do everything OOIDA wanted, it was clear the Association’s voice was heard when the bill was crafted. Past highway bills have been filled with measures to regulate truck drivers, thus making a trucker’s job more difficult. This highway bill was different in that it was chock-full of provisions aimed at helping truckers.

“Our efforts to shape trucking policies in this proposal have been largely successful,” OOIDA President and CEO Todd Spencer said on June 3. “We’ve worked very closely with the chairman to ensure this bill addresses some of the top priorities of truckers while making certain it doesn’t include several policies that would hurt small trucking businesses. I think there’s a lot to like about this bill if you’re an OOIDA member, but some aspects will need to be improved.”

The next step was for the House T&I Committee to consider the bill at markup meeting on June 17.

That’s when things got messy.

Minimum insurance amendment

Before the markup hearing even arrived, it was revealed that Rep. Chuy Garcia, D-Ill., was proposing an amendment to the highway bill that would increase the minimum insurance requirement for motor carriers from $750,000 to $2 million. In addition, the amendment directs FMCSA to adjust the total for inflation every five years.

The push to increase the minimum insurance requirement wasn’t a new one. Reps. Garcia and Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., introduced a bill last year to boost the minimum up to $4.92 million. In 2013, Cartwright introduced a similar bill to raise the minimum to $4.2 million.

OOIDA quickly referred to the amendment as the bill’s “poison pill” and informed members of the T&I committee in advance of the hearing that the Association would be forced to withdraw its support of the INVEST in America Act.

“Passage of the amendment would be a poison pill for OOIDA and our members, forcing us to vigorously oppose a bill we otherwise support,” OOIDA wrote to members of the committee on June. “We urge all members of the committee to reject this unnecessary and punitive proposal.”

For years, OOIDA has pointed out that there is no correlation between insurance coverage and highway safety and that drastically increasing the insurance minimum would likely force many small motor carriers out of business. Doing so, the Association said the amendment would actually decrease safety as it would remove some of the most experienced and safest truck drivers from the industry. An increase of 167% during a time that many small-trucking companies were fighting to stay afloat made the proposal even less palatable.

“This amendment will do absolutely nothing to improve safety on our highways,” OOIDA President and CEO Todd Spencer said. “What this proposal will do is destroy small trucking businesses in every corner of the country.”

OOIDA also pointed to research that shows only 0.06% of crashes result in damages that exceed the current $750,000 minimum.

Still, the T&I committee approved the amendment on June 17.

OOIDA continued to fight for removal of the amendment by supporting a proposal by Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., to strike the measure. OOIDA helped form a coalition of more than 50 organizations, including the American Concrete Pavement Association, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and numerous state trucking associations, in an attempt to eliminate the Garcia amendment (Section 4408) from the bill.

“Section 4408 does not belong in the legislation that is designed to support economic recovery and encourage growth,” the coalition wrote.

On June 30, the House Rules Committee chose not to accept Bost’s amendment, leaving Section 4408 in the bill.

Moving Forward Act

As OOIDA was busy fighting the minimum insurance amendment, the nearly $500 billion highway bill was rolled into the $1.5 trillion Moving Forward Act. 

The merger quickly cemented the legislation proposed by House Democrats as partisan.

On July 1, the full House passed the bill with a 233-188 vote, but Senate Republicans had already called the legislation dead on arrival.

“This so-called infrastructure bill would siphon billions in funding from actual infrastructure to funnel into climate change policies,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a news release.

“No wonder it came out of committee in the House on a purely partisan vote. No wonder the White House has declared it ‘not a serious proposal’ and made it clear this will never become law. So naturally, this nonsense is not going anywhere in the Senate. It will just join the list of absurd House proposals that were only drawn up to show fealty to the radical left.”

What’s next?

While an infrastructure bill could be viewed as a way to spur job growth and give a boost to a struggling economy, passage of any major legislation seems unlikely in an election year. At this point, the surface transportation authorization is expected to be extended into 2021.

“Predicting ‘what’s next’ in D.C. has become a fool’s errand, but we’re hearing from both sides of the Capitol that an extension is likely at this point,” Collin Long, OOIDA’s director of government affairs, said at press time. “The window for getting something done before the Sept. 30 expiration is extremely narrow, especially if the Senate gets nervous about their election prospects and shifts their focus to getting as many judicial nominations confirmed as possible before the end of the year.” LL

Mark Schremmer

Mark Schremmer, senior editor, joined Land Line in 2015. An award-winning journalist and former assistant news editor at The Topeka Capital-Journal, he brings fresh ideas, solid reporting skills, and more than two decades of journalism experience to our staff.