U.S. to unveil highway funding, reform bill

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The U.S. Transportation Department on Monday will unveil its $478 billion proposal to fund surface transportation repairs over the next six years — less than two months before funding is set to run out again — and call for significant additional auto safety reforms.

The new 361-page bill obtained by The Detroit News on Sunday is a revised version of a multiyear highway bill first introduced last year.

It makes significant additional proposals designed to get unrepaired vehicles off the roads faster — including seeking to require all new car dealers to check for uncompleted recalls when owners take their vehicles in for service.

It would require tire purchases to be registered with the manufacturer — and give the government the power to set new electronics safety standards and file criminal charges against vehicle hackers.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx will unveil the new plan Monday in Washington and then speak at the Detroit Economic Club on Tuesday to talk about it and the department's recent report that looks at transportation challenges through 2045.

The administration disclosed in February the price tag for the proposal and some broad outlines but didn't disclose the text of its proposal.

Over the last six years, Congress has not been able to reach agreement on a long-term highway funding bill and instead passed a series of 32 short-term extensions — adding $70 billion for the highway trust fund .

In April 2014, the Obama administration called for boosting the maximum fine for a delaying a vehicle recall to $300 million, up from the current $35 million — and require car dealers to fix used recalled vehicles before selling them as part of $302 billion four-year proposal.

Congress last year appeared eager to approve auto safety reforms in the wake of General Motors Co.'s record setting recall of more than 30 million vehicles and a string of death and injuries from 10 automakers with potentially defective Takata airbags. But aside from a bill to compensate auto industry whistle-blowers, there's been almost no action on auto safety in the last three months.

The Obama administration wants to more than triple the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's defects budget and more than double staffing, but it has received mixed reviews on Capitol Hill. "This is about giving NHTSA the tools it needs," Foxx told reporters last month.

Under the new bill, NHTSA would get new sweeping authority "to take immediate action to respond to any condition of a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment that creates the likelihood of death or serious injury to the public if not discontinued immediately, without prior notice or hearing," the summary says — a revised version of the "imminent hazard authority" proposed last year.

The new bill retains reforms proposed last year but would require new car dealers to check when a owner takes a car in for service to determine if there are any uncompleted recalls. Most automakers require their dealers to do so, but dealers don't always comply.

The proposal would also establish a two-year pilot grant program to determine if state motor vehicle departments could notify owners of uncompleted recalls at the time they were registering or renewing a vehicle registration. Some in Congress have called for making getting recalled vehicles fixed mandatory before owners could renew their license plate. It would also hike the maximum daily fine for failing to comply with NHTSA rules from $7,000 to $25,000.

NHTSA would get authority to issue new standards on ensuring electronics and software function properly and give the agency the power to file criminal charges against vehicle hackers

— giving the agency the ability to charge people "who use electronic devices to affect the performance of a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment of which they are not the individual owner."

The proposal would require all distributors and dealers to register tires at the time of purchase and notify the manufacturer because of low completion rates for tire recalls. Under current law, only tire dealers owned or controlled by a manufacturer are required to register tires with the manufacturer. The bill would also require tire manufacturers to give owners a free replacement tire for a recall for six months — rather than the current 60 days.

The administration wants to hike highway spending by 29 percent over the period to $317 billion and hike mass transit spending 76 percent to $116 billion for projects like light rail, street cars and bus rapid transit.

The bill would allow states to set variable tolls — higher prices at rush hour — to try to ease congestion, with the department's approval. Last's year bill raised the idea of expanding toll roads — and ending the current bar preventing tolling on currently free interstate highways.

It would help phase out traditional toll collectors, requiring that after Oct. 1, 2016, "new toll facilities on federal-aid highways use only non-cash electronic technology for toll collection."

The bill would create a competitive grant program called "Fixing and Accelerating Surface Transportation."

Modeled after the Education Department's Race to the Top program, it would award funding to "incentivize the adoption of bold, innovative strategies and best practices in transportation that would have long-term impact on all projects across the transportation programs," and awards would be at least $50 million.