The Senate has yet to answer the five-year, $759 billion Surface Transportation Reauthorization bill passed by the House last week on a partisan vote, but private school bus companies that also operate motorcoaches are digging in to fight a provision that aims to undo 50 years of service protections.
An amendment introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, who also chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, adds an exemption to the federal charter rule to allow cities and counties to award transportation contracts to local transit agencies for up to 15 days of service for government-sponsored events.
The amendment does not impact regular home-to-school transportation, and the National School Transportation Association (NSTA) and the United Motorcoach Association (UMA). were successful in adding provisions to soften the blow to private contractors by exempting work for convention and visitor’s bureaus and limiting the transportation to the geographic service area of transit agencies.
Both national associations encouraged members to discuss their opposition to the amendment with their local representatives, including DeFazio, a leading proponent of transit on Capitol Hill, during the July 4 congressional recess.
“The charter ruling has been around for such a long time and there really is no reason to change it,” commented John Benish, president and chief operating officer of contractor Cook-Illinois Corporation in Chicago as well as NSTA president.
The House bill also includes a directive opposed by NSTA and UMA that the Federal Motor Carrier Administration (FMCSA) initiate rulemaking for screening of obstructive sleep apnea in commercial drivers.
“We’re always looking for the drivers to be safe as possible, we just have to make sure that the government with new regs doesn’t do too big of an overreach and make it too restrictive,” Benish added. “We already do a pretty good screening of drivers for sleep apnea.cc
He noted that most school bus drivers only operate for a couple of hours at a time, unlike over-the-road bus and truck drivers that can be behind the wheel for 10 hours.
The House legislation also requires electronic stability controls and automatic emergency braking on all new school buses, technology that is already widely available if not standard equipment from school bus manufacturers.
The school bus industry did tally several wins, notably dodging an attempt to require commercial driver’s licenses for operators of nine- to 15-passenger vans, which some school districts are utilizing to combat the driver shortage. NSTA and UMA also pushed back on the latest attempt to increase the self-insurance limit for contractors, end self-inspections of buses at the state level in favor of a new national program by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and remove a motor fuel tax exemption.
Additionally, an amendment failed to advance that would have created and required all states to participate in a national database of CDL infractions. Currently, 19 states operate employer notification systems that provide regular updates on their employees.
Related: FMCSA Medical Review Board Approves Plan for Drivers with Monocular Vision
Related: Update: NHTSA Moves School Bus Driver In-service Curriculum Online
Related: BUS Act of 2020 Renews Nationwide Call for Seatbelts in School Buses
Contained in the House bill is a school bus seatbelt provision taken from legislation introduced by Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Rep. Steve Cohen that stops short of a mandate, instead directing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to further study and report to Congress the impact of the safety restraints on student evacuation during a fire or water immersion, the experiences of states and school districts where the equipment is used, and if bus drivers should or can require students to buckle up.
The House version omitted a provision from the “School Bus Safety Act” that would have also required event recorders in school buses, but it does include a study on fire suppression systems for engine compartments, so-called firewalls between the engine and the driver compartment, and new school bus flammability and smoke emission standards.
NSTA and the National Association for Pupil Transportation have long asked for a comprehensive review of seatbelts before any federal mandate is made, which NHSTA could still decline to do as long as it notifies Congress. NHTSA already published findings from a study on how seatbelts can reduce onboard student behavior issues.
Additionally, the House approved a comprehensive study and resulting recommendations of the three fire provisions in the Duckworth-Cohen bill, rather than requiring the installation of engine fire suppression systems, a “firewall” between the engine compartment and driver area, and new flammability standards for seats and smoke emissions.
The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee must still mark up its version, which is expected later this month. The reauthorization must be signed by the end of September to ensure no stoppage in funding federal transportation programs.
Meanwhile, the Surface Transportation Reauthorization could eventually be rolled up under the larger infrastructure bill. Despite a $1.2 trillion bipartisan agreement late last month that was short on specifics or even mention of school buses when it comes to electrification, dedicated funding remains in the form of several House and Senate bills that would provide billions of dollars for electric school buses and create programs for their rollout at either the U.S. Department of Energy or the Environmental Protection Agency.