Blumenthal, Murphy back short-term highway bill, reject longer one

Interstate 91 approaching Hartford.

Interstate 91 approaching Hartford.

Washington – Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy on Thursday both voted for short-term and against long-term legislation that would keep hundreds of millions of dollars in federal highway money flowing to Connecticut.

The law that authorizes the federal government to send transportation money to the states expires on Friday, but Congress has been tied up in knots about how to reauthorize it.

So on Thursday, the Senate approved, 91-4, a three-month bill that keeps the funds flowing from Washington to the states while Congress continues to argue over a longer-term solution.

Blumenthal and Murphy voted for the short-term “patch.” So did Connecticut’s House members when the bill when was voted on in that chamber Wednesday.

But Blumenthal and Murphy rejected a bipartisan, six-year highway bill that was also considered in the Senate Thursday. The bill, approved on a 65-34 vote, is expected to lay the groundwork for discussion with the House on a long-term solution to Congress’ transportation woes.

To Blumenthal, the bill approved by the Senate Thursday is “indeed a mere shadow of what it should be in protecting the safety of car drivers and passengers, rail riders, truckers, workers, and many others who depend on our nation’s transportation system.”

The so-called “Drive Act”  -— Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy — would allow twin 33-foot trucks that are 17 feet longer than those now allowed on Connecticut highways. It would also allow some states to reduce the eligible age for an interstate commercial truck driving license from 21 to 18. The trucking industry says more drivers are needed to relieve a shortage.

The bill also would prevent the public from seeing the government’s safety ratings of truck and bus companies, because the trucking industry says the ratings are flawed.

Murphy, meanwhile, said he rejected the more than 1,000-page bill because of the way it would be funded.

Most highway money comes from a Highway Trust Fund that’s filled largely through gasoline taxes. But fuel-efficient cars and cutbacks on driving have resulted in more money going out of the fund than coming in. It is nearly broke.

Murphy wanted to raise the gasoline tax, now at $18.4 cents a gallon, to shore up the fund.

“Over the last year, I have been calling on Congress to find a long-term, sustainable source of funding for America’s broken system of roads and rails,” he said. “Instead, the bill the Senate voted on today cobbles together a patchwork of one-time revenue grabs that just kicks the can down the road again when it comes to shoring up infrastructure funding for the long haul.”

The bill would authorize federal transportation spending for six years, but only provide three years of support for the Highway Trust Fund by selling oil from the nation’s emergency stockpile and by cutting the dividend the Federal Reserve’s regional banks pay on stock held by private-sector banks.

Murphy also criticized the bill because it would delay for another three years the implementation deadline for Positive Train Control technology, a safety system that is supposed to be on all tracks and railroad cars by Jan. 1.

Using sensors placed on the tracks, Positive Train Control technology monitors trains and can automatically slow or stop them if they are going too fast or are in danger of a collision. The lack of PTC was blamed for May’s fatal Amtrak crash in Philadelphia.

The bill allocates $199 million to implement PTC, which in Connecticut is currently only on Amtrak’s New Haven to Boston route. There are estimates that $3 billion is needed to adopt the system nationwide.

“From Connecticut’s perspective, this bill doesn’t devote enough money to help us address rail safety needs — it would still leave us short the money we need to upgrade technology to assure another derailment doesn’t happen again,” said Murphy.

 

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