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Road funds at risk in some states over highway safety rule

Posted: January 3, 2012 - 1:04am

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Stuck in a financial pothole, Missouri’s highway department has been selling equipment and eliminating employees to scrounge up enough money to repair its roads. Unless it also changes state law, it could lose tens of millions of federal highway dollars as a penalty for not adopting new safety requirements for commercial truck drivers.

Though Missouri’s financial predicament may be extreme, it is far from unique. Approximately one-third of states have indicated they may not meet a Jan. 30 deadline for their drivers’ license offices to require interstate truck drivers to provide proof from a medical professional that they are healthy enough to drive, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

States that fail to comply with the federal mandate could lose 5 percent of their highway funds — about $30 million in Missouri’s case. If they remain out of compliance for a second year, that penalty doubles. But noncompliant states could receive a grace period; as long as they submit a plan to obey the mandate, federal officials have indicated they may not start deducting money until 2014.

If some states get their federal highway funding docked, it won’t be the first time they have been penalized for not complying with federal highway safety standards.

Records from the U.S. Department of Transportation show 15 states didn’t comply with the federal government’s minimum penalties for drunken driving in 2011, and 11 states failed to follow federal guidelines to prohibit open-containers of alcohol in vehicles. As a result, those states had more than $350 million transferred from their road construction funds to highway safety efforts.

Missouri, which had about $40 million transferred, was one of just four states — along with Alaska, Louisiana and Wyoming — that were out of compliance with both requirements.

The federal agency declined to provide a list of the states in jeopardy of missing the deadline. But Missouri’s plight was confirmed by state officials and documents obtained by The Associated Press through an open-records request. Officials in several other states, including Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma, also confirmed to the AP that they will not be able to fully implement the federal requirement by the deadline.

“It’s hard enough to keep our roads in good condition, and this is going to make it more difficult,” said Missouri state Rep. Eric Burlison, a Republican who unsuccessfully sought to bring Missouri in line with the federal requirements.

The federal government already requires interstate truck drivers to get a medical OK from a doctor. Drivers currently carry around their medical certification cards in case stopped by a police officer or inspector. Under the federal requirement that kicks in Jan. 30, truck drivers are to begin submitting their medical approval forms to state licensing offices, which are to enter the information in a nationwide database that also tracks things such as invalid licenses and driving violations.

“Its whole purpose is just to make sure that the drivers on the road are safe,” said Claire O’Brien, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

Some states have had trouble meeting the technological standards needed submit truckers’ medical certifications into the nationwide database. Colorado, for example, plans to require truck drivers to submit the medical forms to the licensing bureau beginning Jan. 30 but doesn’t expect to be able to enter the information into the database until mid-summer, said Mark Couch, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Revenue. Other states still must change their laws to comply with the federal requirement.

Oklahoma, for example, needs to amend its law to disqualify truck drivers who fail to provide medical certificates to the state. But a wide-ranging bill that included the necessary changes was derailed this past year in the Oklahoma Senate. And the Legislature does not reconvene until early February, just after the federal deadline.

Oklahoma could lose nearly $20 million if it’s not in compliance with the new requirement, said Mike Patterson, deputy director of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.

“We’re concerned, yes, but we have all the confidence that the Department of Public Safety will be able to get all the proper certifications in place, as they have in the past, to secure the federal funding,” Patterson said.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a bill that would have complied with the federal licensing requirements, because he objected to an unrelated provision that could have allowed more electronic billboards along state highways. Emails between the Missouri governor’s office and the state highway department show Nixon’s staff knew of Jan. 30 deadline and had been told by department personnel that a waiver was unlikely.

In August, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration sent Missouri a letter saying states in violation of the medical certification requirements for truck drivers as of Feb. 1 will have to submit a plan demonstrating “an earnest intent to gain full compliance” on an acceptable timeline or else federal funds could be withheld beginning Oct. 1, 2014.

Yet legislators failed to rally the two-thirds majority needed to override Nixon’s veto during a September session. And Nixon didn’t include the commercial driver’s license requirements on the agenda for an autumn special session. The Missouri Department of Transportation says legislation needed to comply with the federal mandate will be one of its top goals for a legislative session that starts Jan. 4.

It’s important not only to avoid a financial hit but to protect the traveling public, said department director Kevin Keith.

Missouri state Sen. Bill Stouffer, a Republican who is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, complained “it’s not fair and it’s not right” that the federal government keeps chipping away at road construction funding with financially linked mandates. Although tougher open-container laws have repeatedly been filibustered in Missouri, the changes needed to comply with federal standards on drunken driving sentences and commercial driver’s licenses have not been controversial. They just haven’t been enacted.

“It’s not a reluctance to get it fixed,” Stouffer said. “It’s just been on a bigger bill that failed. It’s been the victim of the process.”

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