SD to see boost from new transportation bill

By Jake Shama

Congress is expected to pass a bipartisan transportation bill this week that will be "a big win" for South Dakota, according to Sen. John Thune.

Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, said Congress is expected to send President Barack Obama a bill called the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, formed by a conference committee made up of members of the House and Senate that will be funded for the next five years.

"Our state depends on a transportation system that is reliable and effective," Thune said. "It's something that's certainly long overdue and certainly something that's important to our economy."

South Dakota received $272.19 million in apportioned highway funding in fiscal year 2015. The FAST Act Conference Report should provide the state with roughly $286 million in apportioned highway funding in fiscal year 2016?.

And South Dakota will receive a financial boost of $8 million in fiscal year 2016 on top of the $286 million, thanks to a FAST Act freight formula program to improve state highways. The numbers will fluctuate from year to year.

The 1,301-page bill includes considerations for roads, bridges, public transportation, highways, motor vehicle safety, hazardous materials and railroads.

Thune said the bill is not likely to directly impact a 41.6-mile section of rail being refurbished between Chamberlain and Presho, but it could qualify to receive additional funding.

"A number of rail provisions in the bill will be beneficial for rail transportation generally across the country. Any railroad will have some indirect benefit," Thune said.

The bill affects agribusiness as well, as it will waive the requirement for the holder of a class A commercial driver's license to obtain a hazardous materials endorsement if the person is working for a custom harvester operation, agrichemical business, farm retail outlet or livestock feeder, as long as he or she is transporting 1,000 gallons of diesel or less in a vehicle marked "flammable" or "combustible."

The bill applies more stringent regulations on flammable liquids transported by rail, however. The bill rewards nonprofit organizations that conduct national outreach and training programs to assist communities in preparing for and responding to incidents involving the transportation of hazardous materials by rail.

Furthermore, the bill would require railroads transporting hazardous materials to generate more information about a train's destination and cargo, provide advanced notification when moving hazardous materials and work more closely with fusion centers, local governments and other railroads.

The bill also outlines a process to phase out tank cars used to transport some flammable liquids, including crude oil and ethanol, and add regulations when building new ones, like adding a thermal blanket to ensure proper insulation.

The rail regulations follow a Sept. 19 incident in South Dakota when seven cars of a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad tanker train derailed, spilling ethanol and creating a fire that burned prairie land near Scotland.

DUI reform

The FAST Act will also support a sobriety program started in South Dakota called 24/7.

Anti-drunk driving programs that place key ignition locks on vehicles are given federal funding, Thune said, but they only stop a person from driving a single vehicle.

As of now, 24/7 does not receive federal funding, as it doesn't install locks on vehicles. Instead, the program requires drunk drivers to go through a treatment program that requires scheduled and random drug or alcohol tests and may require a violator to wear a SCRAM bracelet to monitor alcohol use, which doesn't limit the program to only one vehicle at a time.

If the FAST Act is approved, states using the 24/7 program will receive an incentive grant to put them "on equal footing" with those that use ignition lock programs.

Thune also said the Senate intends to send the president an act repealing some aspects of the Affordable Care Act.

The senator mentioned a couple from Wessington, about 20 miles west of Huron, who said the cost of their healthcare plan was going to increase by $8,000 next year, and he said he's heard similar stories from around the state.

"I don't know any family that can afford an $8,000 increase from one year to the next," Thune said.

Thune said people need a program that's affordable, accountable and patient-centered, and the current program meets none of those standards.

"That's what the American people want, and it's certainly what they deserve," Thune said.

After being questioned about how repealing the program would affect Indian Health Services in South Dakota, Thune said the move would have little impact.

He said tribal communities have their own health care system that's largely maintained independently of the Affordable Care Act, and he has no intention of damaging IHS.

"IHS is a very important priority for us. It's something we worked long and hard for to make sure we've gotten an adequate amount of funding out there."

Thune said Congress could send a repeal act within a week, but he doesn't expect the president to sign it. 

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