December 4, 2015 is a day that will forever go down in history because the president of the United States penned his signature to a piece of landmark legislation that is poised to change the transportation industry. The fully-funded $3.4 billion federal bill includes a wide swath of improvements and changes for the transportation industry as well as truckers. A bipartisan effort that was years in the making, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act was the result of hundreds of committee meetings and a great deal of compromise and was overwhelmingly approved by a Congressional vote of 359 to 65. Touted as a comprehensive five-year plan designed to help address some of the country’s aging infrastructure, the FAST Act is set to deliver about $48 billion in funding for transit projects and $205 billion federal dollars for highway projects over a five-year time period.
Infrastructure and More
The infrastructure portion of the bill is both welcomed by the transportation industry and seen as a bit of a curse. Truckers can likely look forward to fewer instances of having to alter their routes due to aging bridges and overpasses that are not safe enough to accommodate the weight of a big rig, for example. This will lead to a savings in time and an increase in productivity. However, there will be temporary challenges in the form of more construction zones across the country as states ramp up their highway repair projects in an effort to utilize the sorely needed funds the FAST Act brings to their coffers. Updating the country’s roadways to present day standards so that they are positioned to better meet the demands of the future is not the only aspect of the FAST Act that will be of keen interest to those within the transportation industry, though.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)
The programs of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) were reauthorized through fiscal year 2020. In addition, the FAST Act provides for a number of changes and reforms whose aim is to reduce and streamline regulatory concerns while improving the safety of the trucking industry.
- Compliance, Safety and Accountability (CSA) Program
The reform of the Compliance, Safety and Accountability (CSA) Program brings about sweeping changes within the trucking industry. At the forefront of this reform is language within the FAST Act that charges the FMCSA with ensuring that its CSA Program is as solid as it can be in regards to both enforcement purposes and the safety of the public. A key feature of this aspect of the reform is that the results of the CSA were ordered to be removed from the FMSCA website as well as all other public sites. This occurred once the data was thoroughly reviewed by the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation, the General Accounting Office (GAO) and a host of law enforcement agencies. This temporary removal is set to last until the program has been thoroughly reformed and those reforms enacted per the orders of the FAST Act. Inspection and enforcement data provided by those agencies charged with performing such tasks, as well as state agencies, will continue to be available to the public for their viewing.
- Military Drivers Pilot Program
A previous House version of the bill that became the FAST Act contained provisions that allowed veterans between the ages of 18 and 21 who were trained as truck drivers during their tenure within the armed forces to perform interstate runs per a mandate for a feasibility study. This pertains both those who obtained such training as active duty members and those who served within the reserves. Once the results were generated and tabulated — given a positive outcome — FMSCA was charged with establishing a pilot program for these young veterans. Language contained with the FAST Act addresses the issue on a weaker note but still allows for changes to current FMSCA rules regarding this issue. In this compromise, the FMSCA has been charged with building a pilot program for those veterans who are between 18 and 21 years of age in which they can operate certain types of commercial vehicles within the context of interstate commerce if they have received adequate truck driver education while in the military.
- Removing Restrictions Faced by Veterans
Previously, regulations provided multiple barriers for veterans who wanted to enter the trucking industry. The FAST Act attempts to address them to provide more opportunities for veterans to use their military skills in a civilian capacity. Another way that the FAST Act is charged with doing so is to provide a priority status to those programs that are developed in order to offer the training that veterans need to advance to a career within the trucking industry. Regulatory barriers that veterans face when they are seeking employment within the industry are also to be reduced significantly.
- Drug Testing Changes
The FAST Act sought to make changes to the pre-employment drug testing that truck drivers must undergo before they are hired and can travel along the country’s interstates. While urine testing has long been the standard within the industry, the FAST Act allows employers to use hair testing as an acceptable alternative to urine testing on their operators that underwent such testing during the initial stages leading up to their employment. An important caveat to this inclusion within the FAST Act is that both the FMSCA and committee members agreed that hair testing is not a viable alternative to urine testing until hair testing standards at the federal level are established by the Department of Health and Human Services.
- FMSCA Rulemaking
While it is acknowledged that the FMSCA has a expansive task overseeing the nation’s roadways, it also must be noted that many of the agency’s regulations are not applicable to those conditions that operators — as well as others that use the country’s interstates — face these days. The FAST Act requires that the FMSCA must use the most current and feasible data and science at their disposal when they are designing rules that affect operators. In addition, FMSCA must develop a process that enables either those within the motor carrier industry or the public-at-large to successfully petition the agency. The petitions would center around either changing or withdrawing those regulations that cannot be effectively enforced as well as those that are not consistently enforced in a uniform manner and those that no longer apply to the current conditions. The FMSCA also must be more diligent in communicating those rulemakings that are overdue by providing updates every six months for rules pertaining to driver training, the Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse, determinations for safety fitness and more.
- Equipment Failures
The FAST Act prompts the GAO to conduct a study pertaining the feasibility of operators and their ability to self-report equipment failures while they are out on the road. Two proposed options that are designed to help streamline the process include calling up a dedicated website that allows for real-time reporting or providing a toll-free telephone hotline. Providing operators with the ability to give proof of repairs performed while on the road is also to be part of this GAO study.
The FAST Act is an exciting step in the right direction of giving operators more regulatory power over their industry. This landmark legislation also has its sights set firmly on the increased safety of everyone on the roads as well as improving productivity and satisfaction.
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