Senate Republican Leadership sends letter to Buttigieg pushing for waivers to address Maine’s school bus driver shortage

In the letter, Republicans identify the suspension of several federal rules that could clear the way for school districts and transportation companies to hire drivers more quickly

Photo courtesy of John T Cyr & Sons/Old Town

AUGUSTA, ME — To help support local school districts and transportation companies across the state, Maine Senate Republican leaders, on behalf of the caucus, sent a letter last week to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Peter Buttigieg requesting his department’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to suspend several rules that could allow a quicker turnaround in hiring school bus drivers.

The letter, supporting the previous requests of Governor Janet Mills and Maine’s Congressional Delegation sent to Buttigieg, identified several waivers to current rules that could aid school districts and transportation companies to alleviate the shortage through a streamlined licensing process.

One such rule in particular, the new Entry-Level Driver Training (ELDT) regulation that began Feb. 7, requires anyone obtaining a Class A or B commercial driver’s license (CDL) or school bus (S), passenger (P) or hazardous materials (H) endorsement for the first time to complete additional training before being permitted to take certain CDL skills or knowledge tests. Senate Republican leaders also asked the administration to continue waivers for the pre-trip vehicle inspection skills test, also known as the “under-the-hood” requirement, as well as the waiver of 14-day waiting period required before taking a CDL exam after issuance of a commercial learner’s permit (CLP), the latter of which expires Feb. 22.

The full text of the letter is below.

February 7, 2022

The Honorable Peter Buttigieg

Secretary

U.S. Department of Transportation

1200 New Jersey Ave SE

Washington, DC 20590

Dear Secretary Buttigieg:

On behalf of our Caucus, we write today in support of Maine Governor Janet Mills’ requests in her letter to you dated November 5, 2021 and those in Maine’s Congressional Delegation’s subsequent letter to you dated January 14, 2022 related to “School Bus Driver Licensing Flexibilities.”

One of the biggest challenges we face in the safe transportation of students is striking the balance between addressing severe bus driver shortages across many school districts in Maine and student and driver safety as prescribed by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMSCA). While we applaud FMSCA’s continued efforts in ensuring school bus passenger and transportation safety, current conditions and workforce challenges in Maine unfortunately require licensing flexibilities as we work to address these shortages.

The COVID-19 pandemic was particularly hard for the school busing sector, as many school districts were closed to in-person instruction during the height of the shutdowns. Subsequent hybrid learning and staggered restarts in the months since led to the school busing sector’s workers having to seek employment elsewhere, and the busing sector has never fully recovered since then as CDL driver shortages have exacerbated the problem across the nation and led to a hypercompetitive environment.

In fact, the operation of bus fleets has become increasingly difficult amid the recent surge of COVID-19 illnesses with the Omicron variant and has led some school districts to cut bus routes or cancel classes altogether due to driver shortages.

We appreciate the waiver extension of the pre-trip vehicle inspection skills testing requirement in 49 CFR § 383.113(a)(1)(i), also known as the “under-the-hood” requirement, that was recently enacted by FMSCA on January 22, 2022 and expires March 31, 2022. We also appreciate the waiver of the 14-day waiting period under 49 CFR § 383.25(e) until February 22, 2022. However, the impending reinstatement of both the waiting period and the new Entry-Level Driver Training (ELDT) final rule compliance date of February 7, 2022 will only worsen an already dire situation.

We respectfully ask that the FMCSA maintain the 14-day waiver and delay the ELDT implementation date as we and many other states work to address these severe and unusual challenges for our students, families, school districts and transportation companies. Only with the federal government’s help through regulatory flexibility can we hope to ease the burdens on Maine’s families and workers, and ensure access to the educational opportunities our students deserve.

We appreciate your consideration of our request.

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