WASHINGTON – Congress has approved a sweeping 5-year, 1,300-page transportation bill that places new emphasis on eliminating highway bottlenecks to speed up getting goods to market and provides states the assurance of federal aid that they need in order to commit to major projects. Tucked into the bill were many provisions unrelated to transportation, from a restoration of crop insurance funds to changes in banking regulations.
Here’s a look at some of the highlights:
Puts a new focus on steering transportation aid to highways designated as “freight corridors.” Over the duration of the bill, $4.5 billion is designated for a new competitive grant program for nationally significant freight and highway projects and $6.3 billion for a national highway freight program that uses a formula to apportion money to states.
TRUCK AND BUS SAFETY SCORES
Requires the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to remove safety scores assigned to truck companies from a public website. The scores are based on inspections and roadside checks, but trucking industry officials say the government’s methodology is unfair. The agency would still be allowed to post safety scores for tour bus and interstate bus companies.
—Prohibits rental car agencies and car dealers with fleets of more than 35 cars from renting vehicles that have been recalled but not repaired, a long-sought goal of safety advocates. But the bill doesn’t require used-car dealers to repair recalled vehicles before selling them.
—Triples the maximum fine the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can levy against an automaker that violates safety defect regulations from $35 million to $105 million per violation. The Obama administration had proposed raising the ceiling to $300 million and safety advocates had called for doing away with any limit.
—Doubles the time automakers would have to retain safety records from 5 years to 10 years, making it easier to trace defects.
—Requires the government to revise the five-star rating system for new cars to reflect not only the ability of a vehicle to protect passengers in a crash, but also whether the vehicle comes equipped with crash avoidance systems like automatic braking and lane-change monitoring.
—Provides $21 million for research into in-vehicle sensor technology that can determine if a driver has a dangerously high level of alcohol in his or her body and automatically lock the ignition. No action by the driver, such as breathing into a tube, would be required.
Restores $1.6 billion a year in transit aid for seven high-density Northeast states: Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. The states provide over half of all public transportation trips in the U.S. The House bill would have made the money available to bus systems in all states.
—Provides $200 million to help commuter railroads install positive train control technology to prevent collisions and derailments. Federal investigators say if the technology had been in operation a deadly Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia in May could have been prevented.
—Raises the liability cap on passenger rail accidents rom $200 million to $295 million, and makes the increase retroactive to include the Amtrak crash. Damage awards from that accident, which killed eight people and injured about 200, are expected to exceed the current cap.
—Requires the government revisit a rule requiring trains that haul crude oil and ethanol be equipped with electronically controlled brakes that automatically stop rail cars at the same time rather than sequentially. Freight railroads say the brakes are too expensive and their safety benefits are unproven. The bill requires a study and real-world testing of the brakes, after which the secretary of transportation can decide whether the cost of rule is merited or whether it should be revised.
—Requires Amtrak to permit train passengers to carry small domesticated cats and dogs in a pet carrier on board for a fee.
Restores the authority of bank, an obscure government agency that helps foreign customers finance the purchase of U.S. products. It’s authority was allowed to lapse in July after Tea Party conservatives in Congress opposed its renewal, calling the bank corporate welfare. The bank is self-supported by interest payments and fees, and usually turns a profit.
FEDERAL RESERVE BANK
—Transfers $53 billion over 5 years from the bank’s capital account to help pay for transportation programs.
—Cuts the dividend rate the Fed pays to large banks by tying the rate, now at 6 per cent, to a much lower floating rate for 10-year treasury notes.
Increase customs fees paid by airline and cruise ship passengers by indexing the fees to inflation despite objections from the airline and travel industries. The money would help offset the cost of highway and transit programs.
Repeals a section in the two-year budget deal enacted in November that would have cut federal crop insurance subsidies by $3 billion over 10 years. Farm-state lawmakers were furious when the budget deal was released, saying that the cuts could be devastating to farmers.
Allows the IRS to hire private collection agencies to recover unpaid taxes.