Thune Urges Colleagues to Pass Multi-Year Transportation Bill

“The right decision for the American people is to seize the opportunity to pass a bipartisan multi-year transportation bill without delay”

July 23, 2015

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, today urged his colleagues to pass the DRIVE Act, a bipartisan bill designed to modernize the nation’s infrastructure and transportation systems and better allow America to compete in the 21st century. The bill includes several Commerce Committee titles that cover key transportation and regulatory reforms. A section-by-section of the Commerce titles may be found here and a bill summary may be found here.
Click here to watch Sen. Thune’s full floor speech.

The full text of Sen. Thune’s floor speech follows:

Mr. President, the U.S. Senate has an opportunity to pass a multi-year transportation bill that ensures critical transportation projects move forward without disruption.

As part of this bipartisan bill, the DRIVE Act, we also have an opportunity to pass necessary policy changes that enhance safety and make our transportation system work better.

Part of the DRIVE Act includes important work on transportation policy we have undertaken at the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and we will lose an opportunity to pass bipartisan reforms if we don’t approve this critical legislation.

The last time we passed a multi-year transportation bill into law was 2012. However, since 2009, we have passed 33 short-term extensions to avoid a funding gap that would stop much needed transportation projects.

Highway and transportation infrastructure projects and, in many urban areas, public transit projects are important to our constituents and our nation’s economy.

Our transportation system is one of our government’s most visible assets, and our constituents who sent us here notice when there’s a problem with it.

But Federal infrastructure investments – that Sen. Inhofe and Sen. Boxer take the lead on at the Committee on Environment and Public Works – and transit projects – that the Banking Committee are responsible for – are not the only critical parts of our transportation system.

Policy decisions advance safety initiatives, and we have rules governing how, when, and where we build critical projects – as well as oversight of various regulations at the U.S. Department of Transportation regarding trucking, freight rail, passenger rail and automobile safety requirements.

These areas are the exclusive jurisdiction of the Senate Commerce Committee.

I have the honor of chairing the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and was pleased to see my friend from Florida, Sen. Nelson, who is the ranking member of our committee return last night following his surgery last week to help advance consideration of the DRIVE Act.

Let’s talk about some of the policies I have worked on with colleagues on both sides of the aisle that won’t become law if we don’t move forward with this bill.  Keep in mind, Senators Wicker and Booker are the authors of the rail safety bill that the Commerce Committee passed by voice vote last month, and their bill is included in this legislation.

Let’s recognize that commuter rail systems, including New Jersey Transit and Virginia Railway Express, have stated that they will not meet the federal deadline for implementing Positive Train Control technology.

This legislation currently before the Senate would authorize grants and prioritizes loan applications to help commuter railroads deploy this new technology to help address safety issues and get Positive Train Control up and running as soon as possible.

This bill also includes numerous additional rail safety requirements, including the implementation of necessary Automatic Train Control modifications and crew communication improvements, to improve operations while Positive Train Control is being implemented.

The National Transportation Safety Board recommended requiring inward facing cameras on all passenger railroads to create more accountability – this bill requires all passenger railroads to install such equipment in their locomotives.

This bill also streamlines the permitting process for improvements to existing railroad track and infrastructure, and improves multi-modal planning and permitting. The Secretary will have new authority to speed up projects and reduce paperwork burden.

Outside of improving rail safety, we include a proposal, offered as an amendment during committee mark-up by Sen. McCaskill, to ban rental car companies from renting vehicles needing recall repair work.

We also include several provisions to increase consumer awareness of recalls, increase corporate responsibility and improve highway safety efforts in all states.

Following a harsh Inspector General report criticizing the federal government’s auto safety regulator, this bill requires the full implementation of reforms outlined in that report.

Once these reforms are implemented, the agency’s funding authorization will substantially increase to meet the GROW AMERICA request for vehicle safety efforts.

These are important safety provisions in this bill.

They make our roads and transportation systems safer, and they deserve our support.

At the Committee level, some provisions of our title were the subject of constructive discussions that helped us improve this bill before it made its way to the floor.

Here are a few things we did to broaden support for this proposal after our Committee passed the bill last week:

Sen. Manchin raised concerns about a provision I authored that requires additional testing for a new train braking requirement known as ECP that will be required under law by 2021 and 2023.

I worked with Sen. Manchin, and we came to an agreement that if new real world tests show the requirement isn’t effective, it can’t proceed. If it is effective, there will be no delay in implementation, and there will be no need for a new rulemaking.

We worked with Mothers Against Drunk Driving on another important issue to combat drunk driving.

When we heard they had concerns with our 24/7 sobriety program grant language, we worked with them to address those concerns and ensure that the dedicated grant program for states with ignition interlock laws continues.  

A pilot program our bill proposed that could allow licensed truck drivers between the age of 18 and 21 to cross short distances outside the borders of their home state now requires not only the approval of participating states but also the approval of the Secretary of Transportation.

At the Commerce Committee we have worked, on a bipartisan basis, to change, drop, or add provisions since we marked-up the bill to earn the support of colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

There are still some differences. I expect amendments where this body will have the opportunity to decide important issues we have debated throughout the committee process.

One such issue, where I have heard a variety of opinions, concerns the current $35 million cap on fines the Department of Transportation can assess on manufacturers for auto safety violations.

This bill would double the cap to $70 million, provided that the Department first finishes a still undone rulemaking process on penalty assessment factors that was required in our last highway bill.

Now, I have heard arguments that this cap on fines for auto safety failures should be raised even more or even set at an unlimited amount.

We are doubling this cap to $70 million and conditioning an additional increased authorization for vehicle safety on implementing needed reforms. This bill enhances safety.

If we do not pass this bill:

  • auto safety regulators don’t get more funding as called for by Secretary Foxx and various safety groups following the record 64 million automobile recalls that we have witnessed over the past two years
  • penalties for industry auto safety violations don’t go up
  • commuter railroad don’t get new assistance to help implement positive train control or the other critically important safety improvements that the NTSB, Amtrak, FRA, and others have called for
  • rental car companies don’t face a federal ban on renting vehicles that are subject to open recalls.

 Mr. President, not passing the safety reforms in the DRIVE Act would be an incredible missed opportunity for addressing a host of key safety improvements.

 Now some in this building believe it would be easier if we just passed another short-term extension.

They are right.

It would be much easier.

But keeping highway and related transportation infrastructure projects funded for a few more months doesn’t address safety and regulatory issues we cannot afford to keep ignoring.

Five months from now, if tax reform leave us with new options, we can always decide to infuse additional funding into the bill before the Senate.

But delaying action on transportation for five months could also compound our difficulties.  Recall, there have already been 33 short-term extensions passed by Congress since 2009.

A silent part of every argument for a short-term extension is, “let’s not address safety and other critical transportation needs.”

The right decision for the American people is to seize the opportunity to pass a bipartisan multi-year transportation bill without delay.