COLLAPSE ECHOES BEYOND MINNEAPOLIS
At least nine people died when the Interstate 35W bridge spanning the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed during rush hour Aug. 1. Dozens of people were injured, and at press
time, four people still were known to be missing.
Workers had been repairing the 40-year-old bridge’s surface. Like thousands of other heavily trafficked bridges in the United States, the I-35W span was considered “structurally deficient” for years.
Routing around the missing bridge will cause traffic headaches for months in downtown Minneapolis. Besides I-35E, which crosses the Mississippi in St. Paul, the major alternate route is Highway 280. Backups are expected, and through trucks are urged to avoid the entire area if possible. For detour information, visit www.dot.state.mn.us.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation has fast-tracked the bidding for a replacement bridge and hopes to have a contract in hand in September. President Bush signed a $250 million emergency funding bill for the bridge, but Congress will need to appropriate the money to fund it. U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters made an initial $5 million in federal relief available to begin restoring traffic flow, clearing debris, setting up detours and making repairs.
Peters cautioned states to carefully consider the additional weight placed on bridges during construction or repair projects. Peters also asked her Office of Inspector General to assess the National Bridge Inspection Program and called on all states to immediately inspect any steel deck truss bridges similar to the I-35W bridge. There are 756 of these relatively rare bridges in the United States, according to Federal Highway Administration data.
“We must have a top-to-bottom review of the bridge inspection program to make sure that everything is being done to keep this kind of tragedy from occurring again,” Peters said.
– RANDY GRIDER AND JILL DUNN
FMCSA MULLS RESPONSE ON HOURS OF SERVICE
After a federal appeals court rejected two major pieces of the hours-of-service rule, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s next move wasn’t known at press time.
Spokeswoman Melissa Delaney said the FMCSA’s legal team “is looking into what happens after Sept. 14,” the deadline for the ruling to take effect.
Citing procedural flaws in the rulemaking, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on July 24 vacated the 11-hour driving time provision and the 34-hour weekly restart provision of the HOS regulations. The agency then said it would try “to understand the court’s findings as well as determine the agency’s next steps to prevent driver fatigue, ensure safe and efficient motor carrier operations and save lives.”
FMCSA has 45 days after the ruling to seek reconsideration. If FMCSA lets the period pass without doing so, an additional week would pass before the ruling took effect, the agency said.
The American Trucking Associations called on U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters to push for a stay of the ruling and to encourage the agency to conduct an expedited rulemaking to address the court’s concerns.
“While ATA is disappointed with the decision, we are encouraged by the fact that the shortcomings identified by the Court are procedural in nature and can be readily addressed by FMCSA,” ATA President Bill Graves said in a July 31 letter to Peters.
“There is no compelling safety reason for these two elements of the rule to be vacated,” Graves wrote. “Just a week ago your Department issued its final truck-involved fatality figures for 2006 – the first full year of the industry operating under these new HOS rules – and fatalities declined by 4.7 percent, the largest drop in 14 years.”
“First full year” refers to the rule as modified in August 2005, according to ATA. That modification sharply limited use of the sleeper berth for splitting rest. However, truck-involved fatalities in 2004 and 2005 – both full years operating under the first rewrite of the HOS rule – were higher than they were in 2003.
In asking for an expedited rulemaking on just the 11-hour and restart provisions, Graves said that FMCSA’s policy decisions were sound and that its methodology just “needs to be better explained.”
Bonnie Robin-Vergeer, the Public Citizen lawyer who successfully argued the case against the hours rule, said Congress directed the agency to make safety its highest priority.
“Remarkably, in 2003 and again in 2005, the agency responded by issuing regulations that dramatically increased daily and weekly driving and working hours,” Robin-Vergeer said. “The 2005 rule, like the 2003 rule before it, runs afoul of every one of these congressional mandates.”
– AVERY VISE AND JILL DUNN
EXPERTS AX HOT-FUEL PROPOSAL, FOR NOW
The National Conference on Weights and Measures decided against encouraging temperature-compensation equipment at fuel pumps. The issue may be revisited next year, as the conference established a steering committee to study it.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., proposed legislation Aug. 3 that would require such equipment on new and upgraded retail pumps within six years.
Meanwhile, ExxonMobil is putting decals on the pumps at all its company-operated and company-owned stations in Arizona and California, says Prem Nair, a company spokeswoman. “It is simply a reminder that the dispenser sells motor fuel by volume,” Nair says.
The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights says similar stickers have been posted by refiner Tesoro at its California stations. NATSO spokeswoman Mindy Long said she knows of no plans to label diesel pumps among NATSO’s member truck stops and travel plazas.
– JILL DUNN
POLICE REMIND YOU TO MOVE OVER
A recent survey indicates 71 percent of Americans are unaware of “move over” laws designed to protect police on the roadside, but a public-awareness campaign hopes to change that.
Forty states have passed laws requiring drivers to change lanes whenever feasible to give safe clearance to law enforcement officers parked on roadsides. If traffic doesn’t allow a lane change, or the road is only two lanes, drivers must slow down at least 20 mph under the posted speed limit.
Most of these laws also require drivers to move over or slow down for any emergency vehicles on the roadside with their lights flashing.
Since 1997, more than 150 U.S. law enforcement officers have been killed when struck by vehicles along U.S. highways, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
In a June poll of 625 Americans by Mason Dixon Polling & Research, 71 percent had not heard of “move-over” laws, but once the concept was explained, 86 percent supported enacting such laws in every state.
– JILL DUNN
HOUSE OKS BORDER PLAN ROADBLOCK
The U.S. House has further undermined a Bush administration plan to allow Mexican trucks full access to U.S. highways.
An amendment inserted by U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., into a transportation funding bill stated that none of those funds could be used to establish or implement the cross-border program. The move would block the government’s cross-border pilot initiative for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 and follows restrictions imposed in May.
The proposed yearlong “demonstration program” is the latest attempt by the Bush administration to resolve the long-running dispute over Mexican trucks in the United States. Opponents say the trucks coming from Mexico onto U.S. highways often don’t meet U.S. safety standards and would cost American jobs.
“They have not inspected physically one Mexican truck,” DeFazio said. “They have not interviewed one Mexican driver. In Mexico, they have no system of drug testing, unlike the United States of America, and no certified drug-testing laboratories, unlike the United States of America. They have no hours of service in Mexico. Mexican drivers are frequently required to drive as long as 72 hours. They take drugs to do it. They freely admit that in the Mexican press.”
The Department of Transportation has said its independent inspector general has certified that the pilot program meets eight criteria addressing inspector training, inspection facilities and the development of safety procedures.
Mexico’s requirements for American carriers wanting to do business there include inspections by Mexican officials of carrier facilities in the United States. The requirements are in an English-language PDF at the Spanish-language site dgaf.sct.gob.mx. Click “Registro Proyecto Demostrativo.”
FMCSA does not track the number of American carriers that have applied for operating authority in Mexico. However, 34 Mexican carriers that have applied to do business in the United States have passed safety audits, while nine have failed and 47 have withdrawn, FMCSA said.
Why so many have withdrawn is unclear, but some could have applied as far back as 2002, and their status could have changed since then, the agency said.
– STAFF REPORTS
XM, SIRIUS OUTLINE NEW PRICE PLAN
Satellite-radio networks Sirius and XM announced details of their post-merger pricing plan July 23, a day before submitting it to the Federal Communications Commission. The plan allows customized pricing, which the FCC supports for cable television, but customers would need new radios to take full advantage of the change.
The FCC and the antitrust division of the U.S. Department of Justice must approve the merger before it can proceed.
The companies announced two main “