Committee Clears Highway Bill

House Transportation Committee Moves Bill that Includes PTC Extension

The House and Senate have agreed to extend the deadline for railroads to implement positive train control -- a safety system to monitor and control train movements -- on rail lines that carry hazardous materials, such as anhydrous ammonia. (DTN file photo by Mary Kennedy)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The House Transportation Committee marked up a six-year highway bill on Thursday, which includes provisions to extend the deadline for railroads to implement positive train control (PTC) technology.

"We are very pleased that freight seems like it has more of a seat at the table than it has in other years," Soybean Transportation Coalition executive director Mike Steenhoek told DTN. By 2040, trucks will move 42% more freight than they did in 2012, according to a summary of the House legislation.

Current surface transportation legislation is set to expire on Oct. 29, and it's expected that Congress will pass another short-term extension while the House and Senate reconcile their two different bills. The Senate passed its version last summer.

"Multi-year surface transportation legislation providing adequate funding and greater certainty for transportation infrastructure projects 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," National Grain and Feed Association President Randy Gordon said in a press release.

The House and Senate have agreed to extend the deadline for railroads to implement PTC -- a safety system to monitor and control train movements -- on rail lines that carry hazardous materials, such as anhydrous ammonia.

A failure to extend the current deadline of Dec. 31 could result in severe service disruptions and delays for a broad range of agricultural products, not just hazardous cargo, NGFA said.

Railroads had already started to make contingency plans in case the deadline wasn't extended, Steenhoek said. Norfolk Southern, for instance, sent a notice to its customers that it would not accept receipt of any kind of toxic materials as of Dec. 1.

"The implications of this deadline are earlier than many people think," Steenhoek said. Since all seven of the Class 1 railroads struggled to implement the technology, he's not surprised at the extension.

The National Grain and Feed Association and the Soybean Transportation Coalition noted that while they are pleased with the overall bill, they are looking forward to the possibility of including an amendment on increasing truck weights when the bill is considered on the House floor.

NGFA supports an amendment that will allow six-axle trucks to transport up to 91,000 pounds on interstate highways. It's currently set at 80,000 pounds.

"Federal highway truck weight limits currently are lower than most state road weight limits, and this inconsistency presents obstacles to efficient movement of U.S. grains," said Max Fisher, NGFA director of economics and government relations. "This bill will improve this situation, taking better advantage of our Interstate highway system infrastructure while still protecting highway safety."

Steenhoek said there's a fear that heavier semis are more dangerous, but studies show the opposite is true. Hauling more cargo per truck reduces the volume of trucks on the road, and heavier traffic volume is correlated to increased accidents.

"We'd like to talk about increasing freight efficiency without endangering motorists," he said. "Here's an opportunity for that, and this is an example of emotions getting in the way of good policy."

The major issue that wasn't addressed in Thursday's markup was how to fund it. Steenhoek said the Highway Trust Fund will remain solvent until spring of 2016, and he said there's been some indication Congress would like to resolve those issues alongside passage of the bill.

Katie Micik can be reached at katie.micik@dtn.com

Follow Katie Micik on Twitter @KatieMDTN

(AG)