Highway bill’s hot topics: Expanding truck parking, probing lease-purchases, limiting unpaid detention

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Updated Jun 12, 2020

Though last week I wrote off concerns that the House’s proposal for the next long-term highway bill likely would clear Congress as-is, the bill and the trucking policy riders included within it shouldn’t be entirely discounted.

Provisions within early highway bill drafts often do make such legislation’s final cut. While the measure to block recently finalized hours of service reforms is still a long-shot, other trucking policy provisions proposed in the bill could be enacted into law if and when Congress passes a successor to the current FAST Act.

The Invest in America Act, a potential successor the FAST Act, was introduced by the House’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last week. It calls for more than simply nixing the coming HOS reforms. The law would designate $250 million for expanding truck parking capacity nationwide, require DOT to institute limits on unpaid detention time and establish a task force for examining and potentially regulating predatory lease-purchase arrangements made between drivers and carriers, among other regulatory provisions.

Highway bills such as the current FAST Act and its MAP-21 and SAFETEA-LU predecessors, are major vehicles for Congress to steer trucking regulatory policies. For instance, MAP-21 instituted the ELD mandate and Jason’s Law. The FAST Act required DOT to pull Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) scores from public view and for FMCSA to rework the safety rating program.

The Invest in America Act provides a peek into where lawmakers might steer regulatory policies in its next long-term highway bill — whether it’s the Invest in America or otherwise. Instead of focusing on somewhat stiff action to try regulate safety, the bill seemingly attempts to take issues drivers face daily, such as inadequate truck parking and excessive detention time at docks, and treats them as highway safety issues that need to be addressed.

For expanding truck parking, the bill specifically designates $250 million for grants to construct new parking areas or expand existing lots.

That would include potential grants for states to build new rest areas that include truck parking, but also to build new lots adjacent to existing public and private parking facilities such as truck stops, warehouses, distribution centers and weigh stations, as well as “turnouts,” the bill says, along existing federal highways. The grants also could be used on technologies that help drivers find parking via notification systems.

The legislation calls for DOT to, within a year, begin a rulemaking to reign in unpaid detention time by setting a limit on the amount of time a driver can be detained at a shipper or receiver without being paid for that time. Likewise, it calls for a system by which carriers and drivers could report detention times beyond any limits set by DOT.

The bill doesn’t make clear whether the onus would be on shippers/receivers to pay carriers for that time, or if lawmakers intend for carriers to pay drivers for detention (which obviously would limit the impact on independent operators). Those details likely would be left to FMCSA to sort out. Nonetheless, it could again expand DOT’s ability to regulate shippers and receivers, at least in their interactions with carriers.

As a means to reign in predatory lease-purchase arrangements, the bill calls for DOT to establish a task force to study such agreements and determine how prevalent troublesome agreements are. It would also require DOT to produce resources to help drivers know how to spot predatory deals and avoid them.

Lastly, and perhaps less popular than dollars for parking and attempts to limit excessive detention, the Invest in America bill would require FMCSA to institute a new scoring system for the CSA program and to return scores to public view within a year. It would also require FMCSA to resume its Safety Fitness Determination (SFD) rulemaking. The SFD rule, scrapped in 2017, sought to replace the Satisfactory, Unsatisfactory and Conditional rating system with a simple Fit or Unfit designation. However, it would have allowed FMCSA to place carriers out of service based on CSA rankings alone.

With CSA scoring methodology being revamped, and the scores themselves being deemed unreliable, FMCSA tabled the rule until it had tackled the CSA overhaul.

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