December 3, 2015

Highway Bill Reauthorization Containing Ag Measures Moves in Congress

Earlier this week, House and Senate conferees released the conference report for the reauthorization of the Highway bill. The House passed the legislation earlier today by a vote of 359 to 65 and the Senate will likely take it up Friday or early next week.

Our nation’s highway and rail system are in need of repair and modernization, and this legislation helps ensure those updates will be made by placing highway funding on firmer footing. This package renews the Highway Trust Fund and makes a number of changes that will be beneficial to the overall transportation infrastructure in the United States. The bipartisan package provides more than $300 billion over the next five years, ensuring that projects to enhance our nation’s critical infrastructure are funded through 2020. The bill contains $281 billion for the Highway Trust Fund and over $10 billion for rail-related projects. These funds will be used for continued modernization of highways and bridges, but will also go to further enhancements of intermodal and multi-modal freight transportation options.

Western Growers has been working to include language in the conference report from the Port Performance Act that would require metrics to be taken at all U.S. ports, which would potentially help identify when slowdowns are occurring. While the conference report being voted on today includes a modified version of the Port Performance Act that removes the specific tracking metrics included in the original bill, it does require the establishment of a working group at the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics to develop an agreed-upon statistical set which would be reported on annually. The working group would consist of private and public sector participants. While the language of the Port Performance Act would have been preferable, it was important that language remained in the conference report establishing the need and mechanism for increased metric tracking.

The conference report has several items of note related specifically to transportation issues. Unfortunately, the legislation did not include increased weight limits for trucks or a provision that would have created a single national hiring standard for truck drivers. On a more positive note, there have been efforts to ease the federal age requirement for commercial drivers down to the age of 18 for certain situations (such as cross-state loads but still within a limited geographic area). While these requirements were ultimately not implemented, the legislation does grant certain benefits to veterans, including lowering the age requirement to 18 for drivers, and exempting some veterans from certain skill tests and medical certifications. Additionally, the legislation allows states to waive the hazardous materials endorsement for agriculture drivers carrying less than 1,000 gallons of diesel.

Unrelated to transportation issues, but important to agriculture, the legislation includes offsets to restore $3 billion in cuts to the Federal Crop Insurance program that had been included in the budget bill that passed in early November. This legislation will also be the vehicle for renewing the Export Import Bank’s charter, which expired on September 30th. One of the items being used to pay for this extension is an increase in customs fees, which will have an impact on the cost of importing product into the United States.

For a more detailed summary of provisions in the highway bill, please see this summary or this article. For a detailed summary of everything in the conference report, you can read the joint statement document from the House and Senate Conferees.

Please contact Ken Barbic at (202) 296-0191 for more information.