Congress agreed on the $305 billion FAST Act that reauthorizes federal highway transportation programs for the next five years, the National School Transportation Association calling it a “huge victory” for private school bus contractors.
The House of Representatives passage Thursday of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act signaled the end of a conference with the Senate that began before Thanksgiving to iron out differences. Thursday evening the full Senate approved FAST Act for President Obama's signature on Friday afternoon.
It is the longest highway bill reauthorization since SAFETEA-LU in 2005.
“After hundreds of Congressional meetings, two bus tours, visits to 43 states, and so much uncertainty – and 36 short term extensions – it has been a long and bumpy ride to a long-term transportation bill," said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "It’s not perfect, and there is still more left to do, but it reflects a bipartisan compromise I always knew was possible.”
The National Governor's Association said the passage of the FAST Act "provides states with the certainty and flexibility needed to deliver highway and public transportation projects that enhance the quality, safety and strength of the nation’s infrastructure systems.”
For private school bus operators, NSTA said the legislation renders moot a long-standing objective of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to raise minimum insurance limits placed on commercial vehicle operators. Earlier this year, the House passed an amendment to keep FMCSA from moving forward with rulemaking that NSTA said could increase insurance costs for private contractors by 400 percent.
NSTA added that the FAST Act keeps a provision from the House version, the Surface Transportation Reauthorization that was passed in October, that would require FMCSA to conduct a “comprehensive” study of passenger carrier insurance limits and consult with the industry, including school bus companies. The same applies for any new FMCSA rulemaking process, reported Overdriveonline.com.
The legislation also carries over the requirement that FMCSA completes an “complete overhaul” of the Compliance, Safety and Accountability program, or CSA. NSTA said that would include removing any data on operator violations, no-fault crashes, alerts or the relative percentile of each. lf the seven CSA BASICs for safety (Unsafe Driving, Crash Indicator, Hours of Service Compliance, Vehicle Maintenance, Controlled Substances/Alcohol, Hazardous Materials Compliance and Driver Fitness) from public view one day after enactment.
The Fast Act also calls for a School Bus Safety Study that includes analysis of current federal and state requirements and guidance on home-to-school transportation to note any correlation between public and private operators. The study will look at driver training, passenger capacity levels for different age groups, special needs student operations, bus inspection standards, vehicle age requirements, best practices and public access to bus inspection results and crash records.
The FAST Act also provides for a “small” increase in funding the Transportation Alternative Program, or STP Setaside, the new name for the sub-program of the Safe Routes to School Surface Transportation Program. The new amount will be $835 million in 2016 and 2017, up from the current level of $819 million. Funding also increases to $850 million in 2018 through 2020.
Eligible applicants for STP Setaside funds include nonprofits that focus on transportation safety.
“This is a real victory given the conservative Congress in which opponents wanted to eliminate the program altogether,” said the Safe Routes to School National Partnership in a statement Thursday.