WASHINGTON — Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told concerned Senate lawmakers on Capitol Hill that his department and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration are making a renewed effort to bolster lackluster participation in the FMCSA’s pilot program for 18-20 year-old drivers.
The three-year program, which got underway last summer, is intended to accommodate up to 1,000 carriers and 3,000 apprentices.
However, Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., told Buttigieg during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Thursday that participation in the program is “alarming” after a hearing from a recent FMCSA briefing that just 21 carriers and four apprentices had so far been approved for the pilot.
“We would like to see better participation,” Buttigieg responded, noting the latest data shows 22 motor carriers approved and another 22 that have been approved by FMCSA but are working through the approval process.
“[To help bolster the ranks] we’re making [pilot program] information available to 1,500 carriers that meet the safety requirements,” he said. “We also had a video campaign that took place in February and we’re using social media and outreach to the 2023 high school graduating class. We are very interested in getting the level of participation that will give us good data to continue in this direction without compromising safety.”
Buttigieg was at the hearing to defend DOT’s $145 billion budget request, which provides $76.1 billion for highway, highway safety and transit formula programs. That amount includes $60.1 billion for the Federal-Aid Highway Program, an increase of $1.3 billion compared to the 2023 enacted level, for repairing and upgrading highways and bridges.
When asked about the lack of truck parking and whether he supported a competitive grant program specifically to expand that capacity, Buttigieg said the issue is one of the first raised when talking to drivers.
“And it’s not just a matter of convenience. It’s really a matter of safety,” he said. “It means as a driver is on their route, they see they’re getting to the limit of their hours of service. They’re faced with either having to stop short [of their work limit] and lose income — if there’s even a space nearby — or park in an unsafe place.”
Regarding a dedicated funding program, the House chamber introduced a bill in January that would provide $755 million over the next four years specifically for truck parking expansion.
“We welcome a dialogue [on dedicated funding],” Buttigieg said. “In the meantime, we’re using the funding we already have for this purpose.” That includes infrastructure grants that went toward truck parking expansion in Florida and Tennessee.
Buttigieg also said he supported recent legislation introduced in the Senate that would accelerate deployment of heavy trucks powered by hydrogen fuel cells, when asked about it by Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., one of the bill’s sponsors.
“It’s one thing for cars [to be zero-emission], the story is more complicated for trucks,” Buttigieg noted. “In addition to the trucking and fuel infrastructure discretionary grant program we just put out, I would certainly be interested in expanding the support for this technology. There’s no question hydrogen will become more important.”
Holding railroads accountable
Buttigieg was asked several times about the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment, his support for the recent Railway Safety Act introduced in the Senate in the wake of the accident and what the Biden administration is doing to prevent future rail accidents.
The Federal Railroad Administration’s budget, while put together before the accident, does include more money for federal rail inspectors and research and development, Buttigieg said.
“I don’t want to get ahead of the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] investigation, which may take a year or more, but I would say, broadly speaking, we need more and not less rigorous standards for railroad safety,” he told the committee. “That may include technologies like wayside detection devices, and approaches like the added requirements for high-hazard flammable trains.
“And we need better enforcement capabilities so that we can make sure railroads are accountable. Right now a multibillion-dollar railroad might face just a six-figure fine even if found responsible for an egregious violation resulting in loss of life. We don’t believe that’s enough to get their attention. The Senate’s legislation would add teeth to that enforcement.”
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