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Published on March 16, 2012 3:01AM

Last changed on April 13, 2012 10:30AM

Bill contains timber payments, farm truck exemption

Staff and wire report

The U.S. Senate March 14 passed a transportation bill that provides limited exemptions from federal commercial licensing and safety requirements for farm trucks and operators.

The bill also included a one-year extension of a program established by Congress in 2000 to reimburse counties for a decline in federal timber sales.

The measure now goes to the House of Representatives.

The payments were included in a bill the transportation bill, which included a farm-truck amendment introduced by Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

The amendment makes it easier for farmers and ranchers to transport goods across state lines. It exempts farm trucks and operators from federal commercial driver's licensing, vehicle inspection and other safety requirements operating within 150 miles of their farms. Farm lobbies said the rules hinder farmers' ability to get their products to market.

"This amendment will allow farmers and ranchers to use their farm trucks to move their goods to processing facilities, even if that facility is across the state lines," Merkley said in a prepared statement.

Safety advocates criticized the exemptions.

The one-year extension of what are known as Secure Rural Schools funds includes a 5 percent ramp-down from the fiscal year 2011 amount, leaving Oregon with $102 million for fiscal year 2012.

"Including Secure Rural Schools in this bill gives financially strained counties some breathing room for the next year while we search for a more permanent and long-range solution to funding schools, law enforcement, roads and other vital local services," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in a prepared statement.

The transportation bill includes several safety initiatives and provides $2 billion a year in funding for highway projects.

The Senate's measure would spend $109 billion over about two years and preserve or create an estimated 2.8 million jobs. It would increase the amount of money available for states by raising current spending levels to take into account inflation over the past several years. That's still far short of the dollars that two congressional commissions have said are needed to maintain aging highways, bridges and rail systems while expanding the nation's transportation network to accommodate population growth between now and 2050.

The measure would reduce the number of federal transportation programs by roughly two-thirds in an effort to eliminate duplication.

The 74-22 vote stepped up pressure for quick action by House because the government's power to collect about $110 million a day in federal gasoline and diesel taxes, the main source of revenue for highway and transit programs, will expire March 31. If a final bill isn't on the president's desk by then, Congress would have to approve a temporary extension to avoid a shutdown of the programs, including the furlough of Federal Highway Administration employees and the layoff of construction workers.

Efforts by House Republican leaders to pass their own, five-year bill without concessions to Democrats have fallen apart in recent weeks. The House returns next week from a weeklong recess.


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