WASHINGTON – States may have to step up their enforcement of truck-safety laws if President Clinton signs a transportation funding bill that eliminates the federal office now responsible for those laws, federal officials said Thursday.
A last-minute amendment to the transportation appropriations bill that is on the president’s desk would cut off funding to the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Motor Carrier and Highway Safety, which enforces truck-safety laws.
“If the transportation appropriations bill is signed into law, the lives of the driving public will be placed in serious jeopardy,” said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., at Thursday’s hearing of the House Ground Transportation Subcommittee.
Maryland transportation officials were surprised to learn that the federal office might be forced out of business and, consequently, did not have a prepared response.
“We’re going to do our own enforcement regardless of what the federal government is doing,” said Maryland State Trooper Cynthia Brown, a department spokeswoman. “Truck drivers still have to travel state roads, stop at weigh stations and go through inspections.”
While state police can take offenders to court or suspend their operating rights, Capt. Guy Guyton conceded that losing the help of federal enforcement officials could be “detrimental.”
“We have people who bypass our system,” said Guyton, commander of the state police commercial vehicle enforcement division. “That’s an ongoing problem.”
State officials were not able to say Thursday how often the federal office cited trucks in Maryland last year. U.S. Department of Transportation General Counsel Nancy McFadden told the subcommittee that, nationwide, OMC conducted nearly 4,600 compliance reviews in 1998, about one-third of which resulted in civil action.
If it loses its funding, OMC would be allowed to shift its ability to make rules and investigate possible offenses to other transportation units. But it would be powerless to stop companies or drivers who violate federal laws, except in cases of “imminent hazard.” And no other federal agency can enforce the regulations that OMC sets, McFadden said.
“We’d hope on the really egregious cases where we’d be unable to make enforcements, that the states could step in and enforce their own statutes,” McFadden said during a break in the hearing.
Julie Cirillo, program manager for OMC, said the office would continue to report high-risk carriers to states to help them identify the worst offenders and target their enforcement efforts.
Members of the subcommittee criticized the attack on OMC. The amendment to cut funding for the office was added to the appropriations bill late on the evening of Sept. 30, just hours before the House voted to pass the legislation. Subcommittee members complained Thursday that the final vote was rescheduled, effectively preventing them from debating the provision on the House floor.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee, has urged Clinton to veto the entire transportation bill because of the OMC cut. White House officials said Thursday that a veto is unlikely.
Without a veto of the entire bill, OMC will be effectively shut down with the president’s signature, unless Congress reinstates its enforcement abilities at some later point.
In the meantime, “you’d have to assume that safety could be compromised,” by the closing of the truck-safety office, said Bill Jackman, a spokesman for the national office of the American Automobile Association.