Blumenthal seeks last-minute safety measures in highway bill

Sen. Richard Blumenthal

Sen. Richard Blumenthal

Washington – Senate and House negotiators are working on a long-awaited, long-term transportation bill, but Sen. Richard Blumenthal and safety advocates are concerned the legislation will be seriously flawed.

“This measure is a great step backward in highway safety,” Blumenthal said.

With the help of all five members of the Connecticut delegation, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill last week that would spend up to $325 billion on construction and maintenance of roads, bridges and transit systems, largely by sending federal transportation money to the states.

It is a six-year bill – if Congress can find a way to pay for its final three years – and would end the patchwork of short-term highway bills approved by Congress that have frustrated governors – including Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

But Blumenthal, and Sen. Chris Murphy, were in the minority who voted “no” when the Senate considered its version of the highway bill on July 31.

To Blumenthal, the Senate bill had a number of shortcomings, including a provision allowing 18-year-olds to drive interstate trucks and buses, and inadequate remedies to address issues revealed by the GM ignition switch and Takata airbag recalls.

Safety advocates said other failings in the bill include the absence of a requirement that rental car companies and used car lots stop leasing and selling cars that are being recalled from customers.

“These measures are not short-term; they will set policy for six years,” Blumenthal said.

Current highway funding authorization will expire on Nov. 20. The House and Senate hope to vote on the new, six-year bill next week.

During a telephone press conference Tuesday, Russ Swift, a co-chair of Parents Against Tired Truckers, who son Jasen was killed by a teenaged truck driver in Nevada, decried the lowering of the interstate truck driving age from 21 to 18, calling it “incomprehensible.”

“Studies show that truck crashes increase when the age of the driver decreases,” he said.

The American Trucking Association placed lowering the age of interstate drivers at the top of its lobbying agenda this year.

Dave Osiecki, executive vice president of the ATA, said the trucking industry loses a lot of potential drivers because high school graduates are not old enough to drive interstate and go on to trade schools or other professions.

“We all know the 18- to 21-year-old period is a time where we lose kids coming out of high school that don’t go to college but go to trade schools and into construction and other competing industries,” Osiecki said.

Other advocates of the highway bill said the legislation will provide state transportation departments a source of reliable funding and includes safety reforms.

“The (highway bill) is a multi-year bill that provides that certainty for states and local governments,” said Republican Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, head of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “This bill helps improve our nation’s infrastructure and maintains a strong commitment to safety, but it also provides important reforms that will help us continue to do the job more effectively.”

Chances are slim that the negotiators of the final highway bill, a majority of them Republican, will include all the safety provisions Blumenthal and the safety advocates are seeking.

Blumenthal had one win on the bill Tuesday.

The Senate, on a voice vote, agreed to a motion insisting that Senate negotiators include a provision implementing positive train control, a safety system that can slow or stop a speeding train, within three years. The House transportation bill would have allowed railroads to extend that deadline, now Dec. 31, for up to five years.

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