Friday, December 23, 2011

Federal Appropriations - the year-end wrap

It seems almost as if the FY 2012 appropriations were all about buses. Once Congress got down to work, they first churned out the "Minibus," an appropriations bill that covered Agriculture, Commerce, Transportation and HUD. And then, to finish up all the necessary spending bills, along came the "Megabus," which funded everything else. Below are a few pertinent highlights from these bills, followed by a coda from the "Temporary Payroll Tax Cut Continuation Act," which Congress just completed before racing off on its holiday break.

First, from the "Minibus," which was signed into law last month:

Funding to the Federal Transit Administration goes up to $10.6 billion, an all-time high. Within the FTA portfolio, formula grants (which would include Section 5307, 5310, 5311, 5316, 5317) all increase by 0.2 percent. The legislation allows for Section 5307 funds to be used to cover urban transit agencies' fuel costs, up to a nationwide total of $100 million. There's a 22 percent increase in funding for New Starts/Small Starts fixed guideway spending, accompanied by provisions that require 40 percent non-federal match for those grants, and require Bus Rapid Transit projects to be funded out of the Section 5309 bus/bus facilities account instead of the Section 5309 New Starts/Small Starts account. FTA "TIGGER" grants are eliminated. No funding is designated for DOT "livability" grants. The DOT-wide "TIGER" program is funded at $500 million.

HUD's Community Development Block Grants continue to decline, and are funded at $2.9 billion in this legislation. Within the HUD portfolio, no funding is identified for "livability" projects, but the final version of this legislation is at least tolerant of livability being an allowed, if not appropriated, use of HUD dollars (the initial House legislation would have banned funding for livability).

Then, from the "Megabus," which Congress sent to Pres. Obama on December 17 for his signature:

  • Medicaid funding is estimated at $270.7 billion in FY 2012, which would be a 4 percent increase from FY 2011.
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is authorized only through a portion of FY 2012; its funding will be the prorated share of $16.5 billion for the year.
  • Workforce Investment Act programs continue their gradual decline, and are funded at $4.9 billion in FY 2012.
  • Vocational Rehabilitation grants will be maintained at the $3.1 billion level.
  • Community Services Block Grant programs will increase to $713.6 million for FY 2012 (despite having been recommended for a 50 percent cut in President Obama's budget request).
  • Older Americans Act Title III-B funds for supportive services, senior centers, etc., will be maintained at the $367.6 million level.

Finally, the "payroll tax cut" bill which just finished being negotiated between the House and Senate includes a short-term extension of the TANF authorization, through February 29, 2012 (TANF was set to expire on December 31). The legislation is silent on the Internal Revenue Code's Section 132(f) "qualified transportation fringe benefit," which means that - as of January 1, 2012 - the allowance for tax-free transit benefits drops back to the pre-ARRA level of $125 per month (this amount may be adjusted slightly by the IRS to account for inflation).

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Planning to use your cell phone & drive a commercial vehicle? Think again!

Talking and texting on handheld devices in motor vehicles continues to gather a large amount of media and highway safety attention. While actions such as the National Transportation Safety Board's recent recommendation that there be a nationwide ban on the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (including both handheld and hands-free cell phones) and US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood's ongoing campaign against all forms of distracted driving have attracted the most widespread attention, other actions more directly affect the operations of public and human services transportation.

Most recently, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) issued a final rule restricting the use of cell phones by operators of commercial motor vehicles. This rule was published on December 2, 2011, and takes effect January 3, 2012.

At its core, this rule is very straightforward: drivers of commercial motor vehicles are prohibited from using handheld mobile telephones while driving the vehicle, except in emergency situations. Motor carriers (i.e., the companies and entities employing drivers of commercial motor vehicles) are prohibited from allowing or requiring their drivers to use handheld mobile telephones while driving, except in emergencies. States are to adopt laws or ordinances that are consistent with this restriction. Drivers found to have repeated violations of this restriction will face suspensions of their commercial drivers licenses (CDLs).

Note that FMCSA already has a regulatory restriction against "texting" while driving a commercial motor vehicle. The December 2 rulemaking modifies a couple of small aspects of the texting restriction to help it confirm to the handheld mobile phone restriction. Although there has been much discussion, and forays into highway safety data, about broadening the scope of these rules, no further action has been taken by FMCSA to date. Their restrictions currently apply only to texting on mobile communication devices while driving, and using handheld mobile telephones while driving. However, many agencies and employers, and even some states, have more extensive restrictions on the use of mobile devices while driving.

Of course, even though the nature of this rule is fairly simple, its applicability to public transportation and to the various forms of human services transportation becomes much more murky. A few general tips are below, but if you're concerned about compliance, the most important steps are to contact your state's motor carrier safety agency (typically housed within your state DOT) or your state's FMCSA office.

For providers of public or human services transportation, it would appear you MUST comply with the FMCSA restrictions on using handheld mobile phones if:

You are operating a motor vehicle for which federal law requires the driver to hold a CDL and this vehicle is used for interstate transportation (of course, most states have near-identical requirements for intrastate transportation), or
You are operating a vehicle designed to seat between 9 and 15 passengers (including the driver) in interstate transportation for which you are compensated, whether through passenger fares, contracts, grants, etc. (again, most states have near-identical requirements for intrastate transportation).

Because FMCSA's regulatory authority extends only to activities of interstate commerce, it would appear the FMCSA restriction on handheld mobile phones and texting do not apply to drivers of motor vehicles who are the direct employees of units of federal, state or local government. However, it's entirely possible that drivers who work for state or local government, and the agencies employing them, are covered under individual states' motor carrier safety regulations, including restrictions on the use of handheld phones and mobile texting devices. Moreover, the FMCSA "governmental" exclusion cannot be extended to the contractors or grantees of federal, state or local government, nor to nongovernmental private entities created by the action of state or local government.

As a final reminder, neither these nor most other FMCSA regulations apply to the operation of vehicles designed to seat 8 or fewer passengers, even when interstate in nature.