Monday, December 27, 2010

CDL-Holding Drivers: Don't Use Handheld Devices While Driving

Drivers who are required under federal law to hold Commercial Drivers Licenses (CDLs) would be prohibited from using cellphones or similar handheld devices for conversation or texting while driving, under a rule proposed last week by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

There is a lot of literature and data to support the need to prevent "distracted driving," of which cell phone/texting use is a critical risk. The proposed rule would not place new restrictions on two-way or citizen-band radios. However, since many community transportation organizations are using cell-phone based technologies for their core communication functions, study and comment on this proposed rule is well-advised.

The proposed rule was issued in the December 21, 2010, Federal Register. Comments are due to FMCSA by February 22, 2011.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Transit Benefit "Parity" Will Continue for one more year

Today or tomorrow, Pres Obama is expected to sign an $858 billion package of tax cuts and extensions into law. While some provisions of this legislation, such as the extension of unemployment benefits, and a temporary rollback of payroll taxes for Social Seucrity, will be noticed by almost every working and non-working person, there is at least one nugget of news for the transit community.

Sec. 727 of the tax relief bill continues the temporary "parity" of tax-favored transit benefits for one more year, through December 31, 2011. This means that employers can continue to provide tax-free transit and vanpooling benefits of up to approximately $230 per month under Section 132(f) of the Internal Revenue Code. This is the same as the amount of tax-free parking benefits employers are allowed to provide.

Prior to enactment of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), transit benefits were capped at an annually adjusted rate that was approximately half the value of allowed parking benefits. ARRA provided a temporary increase for transit, but this going to expire this month, and the transit benefit would have reverted to an estimated $120 per month, were it not for this legislative action.

Other aspects of the "tax relief" bill may be noticed in some corners of the transit community. There are extensions of the Work Opportunity Credit and New Markets Tax Credits, which can facilitate employment of certain populations and tax-favored investments in economically distressed areas, respectively. Some "post-Katrina" and "post-9/11" tax credit programs also are extended. On the other hand, the "Build America Bonds" program created under ARRA is not being extended, and new bonding will come to an end this month.

In other news, Senate efforts to pass a comprehensive "omnibus" appropriations bill have fallen apart. Senate leaders are regrouping, to see what next steps to take. Since the current continuing resolution expires this weekend, some action is imminent, but it's hard to gauge whether the next legislation will sustain government spending for a few days, a few months, or the remainder of the current fiscal year.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Preparing for extensions, continuations

As widely reported, federal spending for the current fiscal year (i.e., the year ending September 30, 2011, or FY 2011), has not been finalized by Congress and Pres. Obama. The current "continuing resolution" is keeping the federal government in business through Dec. 18, 2010.

The House has passed a massive, government-wide continuing spending bill that would sustain federal programs and activities through the remainder of the fiscal year. Under this legislation, most federal programs would be sustained at their FY 2010 funding levels, with some adjustments here and there. The House bill appears to be devoid of specific project earmarks.

For a number of reasons, this bill is believed to face an uncertain fate in the Senate. Until something predictable starts to emerge in Senate deliberations, I'm loath to post or predict funding levels.

In the transportation arena, one of the critical components of the House spending bill is a one-year extension of the current SAFETEA-LU highway and transit legislation, continuing these authorizations through September 30, 2011.

Speaking of extended authorizations, another piece of legislation, the Claims Resolution Act of 2010, was just signed into law by Pres. Obama. While the headline features of this bill are guaranteeing settlements for Native Americans (over BIA-administered trust accounts) and African-American farmers (concerning improperly denied farm loans), a key feature of this legislation for public and community transportation stakeholders is an extension of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program authorizations through September 30, 2011.