Ag Policy Blog

House Highway Bill is Eastbound and Down

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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I was going to go with "Life is a Highway," headline where I'm a firm believer that Tom Cochrane's version is way better than Rascal Flatts could ever do.

But for some reason Jerry Reed is in my head, maybe because like every good country boy from the '70s, I still love Smokey and the Bandit. But the opening stanza of "East Bound and Down," is somewhat symbolic of what is going on as the House and Senate try to get a real highway bill done.

"East bound and down, loaded up and truckin,'

We gonna do what they say can't be done,

We've got a long way to go and a short time to get there ..."

Why do they say it can't be done? Well, we are on our 35th extension of the old highway bill -- I think it was one of those Ice Tea bills -- and we don't have a long-term bill yet.

The House began floor debate Tuesday on the rule regarding a six-year highway funding bill, a House alternative to the Senate bill.

Actual debate on the highway bill should kick off Wednesday for HR 3763, the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015. (It's not a credible House bill if the word "reform" is not included somewhere in the title. They really want you to know they made changes somewhere in the bill.)

The bill, once passed and conferenced with a Senate bill, would end the series of 35 short-term extensions of the bill. It's a six-year bill that would end up spending, on average, about $50.4 billion a year on national highway projects.

Specifically for highway projects, the funding would be about $285 billion from 2016-2021. Another roughly $18 billion over that time would go to a variety of other transportation programs.

The bill doesn't address the shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund, which already has its own built-up shortfall of $52 billion and would increase the shortfall in the trust fund by roughly $6 billion. The House has sought to avoid any kind of increase in fuel taxes in the bill.

The bill does streamline some of the environmental reviews and permits that can slow down highway projects. It also gives more options to local governments to allowing them to address their local issues. It also slightly boosts the percent of Surface Transportation Program going to local governments from 50% to 55%.

Getting back to that semi-truck convoy theme, there will be a battle over truck weights somewhere along the way. According to an update by the Soybean Transportation Coalition, Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., will introduce his bill, the "Safe Trucking Act," which would increase weight limits on the interstate system by allowing six-axle, 91,000 pound semi-trucks. Currently, the weight limit is 80,000 pounds.

Among the arguments in favor, the STC stated, "For transporting agricultural products, allowing six-axle, 91,000 lbs. semis will result in fewer truck trips, fewer gallons of fuel consumed, fewer tons of carbon dioxide emissions, and reduced fuel costs.

"The use of a six axle, 91,000 lbs. semi will enable a farmer to transport an additional 137 bushels of soybeans or wheat or 146 additional bushels of corn per load."

The weight-limit amendment could be a significant debate, given the groups that have lined up against it. Police, sheriffs, state trooper groups oppose it, as do the National Association of Counties, AAA and the National League of Cities. Behind all that opposition also is the American Association of Railroads. The Railroads see heavier truck weights as creating more direct competition.

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