Thursday, September 10, 2015

Just in from Washington

Ag groups detail priorities for highway bill

Washington—Strong infrastructure, such as highways and bridges, is hugely important in keeping U.S. agriculture competitive and consumer costs down, Farm Bureau and 27 other agricultural organizations wrote to House members in a letter urging them to pass multi-year surface transportation legislation that provides adequate funding for transportation infrastructure programs.

“While all modes of transportation are important to agriculture, trucks move almost all agricultural commodities from the field to the warehouse and also transport 64 percent of grains and oilseeds from warehouse to end user,” the groups wrote. Among the areas of concern farmers, ranchers and agricultural transporters would like to see addressed in the legislation is an extension on the implementation deadline for positive train control, which is needed to prevent a disruption in the supply of necessary fertilizers, crop inputs and rail cars for transporting freight.

 “Several railroads have indicated that they may be unable to move important crop inputs such as anhydrous ammonia on lines that do not have PTC installed. This development could threaten delivery not only of fertilizers and other inputs but other traffic on those lines as well,” the groups wrote.

If Congress does not extend the Dec. 31, 2015 deadline for installing PTC, fertilizer manufactures would likely curtail production, leaving farmers without enough fertilizer to use during the narrow planting season. A minimum commercial driver’s license age of 18 would make federal law, which now puts the minimum CDL age at 21, consistent with the laws of the contiguous 48 states.

The federal minimum age of 21 means anyone younger than that cannot drive commercially across state lines, despite being licensed in a state. The groups requested that lawmakers carefully examine regulatory attempts to unduly raise the cost of truck transportation without corresponding safety benefits, such as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) proposal to greatly expand motor carrier financial responsibility and its proposal to place unwarranted responsibilities on shippers and receivers for drivers who are not employed by them.

 “Motor carriers must be able to comply with safety regulations in an affordable manner; otherwise the pool of motor carriers will diminish and the cost of transportation will increase,” the groups cautioned.

In addition, an exemption to a hazardous materials endorsement for custom harvesters and other operators of similar equipment would allow the agricultural industry to perform more efficiently and recognizes the needs of modern production agriculture. The organizations also asked the lawmakers to confirm congressional intent in regards to provisions of MAP-21 that provide regulatory relief from several FMCSA regulations.

As those exemptions were being implemented over the past few years, several states raised questions regarding the scope of exemptions that could be provided to the intrastate operation of “covered farm vehicles.” When petitioned, FMCSA has interpreted the provisions of MAP-21 much more narrowly than Congress intended. To remedy this, the groups asked that lawmakers clarify “that states may adopt standards that still provide safety but are more reasonable to farmers and employees operating farm trucks near the farm, without jeopardizing federal funding.”

 Provisions related to giving states the option to increase truck weight tolerances on federal highways, the permanent removal of the 30-minute break after eight hours of service and the collection of port performance data are critical too, according to the groups. Noting that the Senate passed a reauthorization bill for the Surface Transportation Board, the organizations urged the House to pass a stand-alone companion bill or include the reauthorization’s provisions in a multi-year surface transportation bill.

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