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Blunt, McCaskill provisions included in highway funding bill

road construction
Paul Sableman | Flickr
Road construction is not likely to be disrupted, given agreement on a new highway bill.

If you drive a rental car, travel by rail, or need to turn on the AC on a hot summer day, you will be affected by provisions Missouri’s two U.S. senators have worked to get into a highway funding bill, likely to win congressional approval in the next few days.

The provisions are included in a massive $305 billion, five-year highway plan that critics say includes “budget gimmicks.” Some funding would come from places other than gas taxes and other funds directly linked to transportation.

Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Claire McCaskill teamed up to co-sponsor The Grid Reliability Act, aimed at ensuring power utilities don’t run afoul of environmental regulations when operating under orders from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to improve power grid reliability, especially at times of peak demand for electricity.

The two first introduced the measure in the spring.  At the time, Blunt called it an issue of basic fairness.  “It is completely unacceptable that utility providers in Missouri and across the nation are forced to violate the law and face costly lawsuits for simply doing their job,” Blunt said at the time.

McCaskill echoed Blunt’s concern for fairness.  “The government has created an inherent conflict by forcing electricity providers to take action and then punishing them for taking that action.”  The measure protects utilities from citizen lawsuits or environmental fines when the government orders utilities to provide grid reliability.

Another McCaskill-sponsored measure included in the package would streamline an often cumbersome federal permitting process for major projects.  The Permitting Improvement Act, has been a two-year effort of McCaskill and U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.  The two reintroduced the measure last spring with backing from a wide array of business, industry, union, and trade associations including the U.S. and Missouri Chambers of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, Missouri Realtors, Associated General Contractors of Missouri and others. 

In explaining the need for the bill, McCaskill said the measure will sharply cut “red tape in government to better promote economic opportunities and boost jobs in our state.”  

Another provision in the package would require rental car companies to address “open safety recall” issues before renting vehicles to consumers.  “When consumers and families drive a rental car off the lot, they should be able to do so with the confidence that the car is safe to drive,” said McCaskill at the time her bill was introduced.  The measure had the backing of manufacturers including Honda and GM, the rental car industry and safety advocates.

Two provisions supported by Blunt address issues of concern to the rail industry.  One would promote more competition in passenger rail service by creating a state-supported route commission.  The commission would be charged with encouraging greater collaboration among those using state-supported rail routes while also pushing non-federal participation in some parts of Amtrak’s system.

As for roadway issues, one Blunt-backed measure protects funding for so-called “off-system” bridges, such as county owned bridges. Another helps lessen delays for special vehicles needed for emergency infrastructure repairs.  Many states require special permits for oversized vehicles or trailers.  The measure would streamline that process when such vehicles are needed in emergencies.

If approved, this would be the first long-term highway funding bill since 2005.  Since then Congress has passed nearly three dozen short-term measures designed simply to keep money flowing to the states for necessary repairs and maintenance.  

The motor fuel tax has not been increased since the early 1990s when the nation’s Interstate highway system, backed by then President Dwight Eisenhower, was declared completed.

This legislation would also renew the Export-Import Bank through September 2019.

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