Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
May 23, 2015

March 27, 2015

Farewell From The Container

 The Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River in New York.  (Photo by Jim Alcorn/Getty Images)

The Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River in New York. (Photo by Jim Alcorn/Getty Images)

Thank you for visiting The Container. From now on, subscribers can find our latest transportation news at CQ.com.

 

March 26, 2015

Alps Crash Appears To Have Been Deliberate

Rescue workers continue their search operation into a third day near the site of the Germanwings plane crash in La Seyne les Alpes, France. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Rescue workers continue their search operation into a third day near the site of the Germanwings plane crash in La Seyne les Alpes, France. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

When aviation safety experts speaks of “the insider threat,” they mean not only aircraft maintenance workers who smuggle weapons or drugs aboard planes, or place a bomb on a plane, but pilots or co-pilots who deliberately crash their aircraft.

On Thursday the prosecutor in Marseille announced that the co-pilot of the Germanwings Airbus A320 that went down in the French Alps Tuesday appears to have deliberately crashed the plane.

All 150 on board were killed.

The co-pilot was a German named Andreas Lubitz, 28, who was flying the plane after the captain left the cockpit. Evidence from the cockpit voice recorder indicates that he refused to open the cockpit door and then put the plane into its final descent.

This type of incident has happened before.

On Oct. 31, 1999, EgyptAir Flight 990, a Boeing 767 which had departed from New York bound for Cairo, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean about 60 miles south of Nantucket, Mass., killing all 217 people on board.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the relief first officer, Gameel al-Batouti, took deliberate actions that crashed the plane. As the plane headed toward its impact with the ocean he repeatedly and quietly said, “I rely on God.”

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the accident was al-Batouti’s “flight control inputs. The reason for the relief first officer’s actions was not determined.”

Journalist and pilot William Langewiesche wrote an excellent account of the investigation of that crash, focusing on the split between the Egyptian and U.S. investigators.

March 25, 2015

Indicators Signal That It May Be Time To Abandon Ship

Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, right, seen here with James B. Lee of JP Morgan Chase at an event last year, warned of over-capacity in the shipping industry.  (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for The New York Times)

Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, right, seen here with James B. Lee of JP Morgan Chase at an event last year, warned of over-capacity in the shipping industry. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for The New York Times)

A slowdown in demand, especially from China, for iron ore, coal, cement, and other commodities means less need for dry bulk goods vessels to carry those commodities.

The Baltic Dry Index, which measures the rates for chartering ships that transport commodities, has been hovering near its 30-year low.

The slump has led billionaire investor Wilbur Ross to warn this week that “shipping’s structural problems can only be solved by massive consolidation” in the shipping industry.

Ross is renowned for making his fortune by buying distressed assets when others are too pessimistic to take the plunge.

His comments were reported in the Financial Times which added that “most vessels carrying coal, iron ore and other dry commodities are earning less than their operating costs in one of the worst ever markets for such vessels.”

In response, dry bulk ship owners are selling their vessels for scrap, instead of operating them at a loss.

March 24, 2015

Trucking Industry Sues Oregon Over Fuel Law

The trucking industry is trying to block Oregon's lower carbon fuel standards. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The trucking industry is trying to block Oregon’s lower carbon fuel standards. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Oregon’s new governor Kate Brown two weeks ago signed into a law a bill requiring distributors to reduce the carbon “intensity” of vehicle fuel by 10 percent over the next decade.

Now the American Trucking Associations has joined with the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers and the Consumer Energy Alliance in suing Oregon to block the fuel standards.

“The Oregon program is set up to give a big boost to Oregon’s small biofuel industry, without reducing net greenhouse gas emissions, and at the expense of higher fuel costs for everyone,” said ATA Vice President for Energy and Environmental Affairs Glen Kedzie. “Unfortunately for Oregon, the Constitution doesn’t allow states to set up these kinds of trade barriers in order to promote in-state businesses, nor does it allow Oregon to regulate how fuel is produced in other states.”

The trucking group contends that the Oregon law will hurt out-of-state refiners and producers and thus violate the Constitution’s Commerce Clause.

Brown said she signed the bill because it will help counteract “the effects of a warming planet. This year, 85 percent of our state is experiencing drought, with 33 percent experiencing extreme drought.”

She noted that her state’s Pacific Coast neighbors, California, Washington, and British Columbia, have launched their own lower carbon emissions programs, “which will shape the West Coast market,” and therefore “it is imperative not only that Oregon does its part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also that we build a program that meets the needs of Oregonians.”

Brown, a Democrat who had been serving as Oregon’s secretary of state, became governor last month when Gov. John Kitzhaber, also a Democrat, resigned amid federal and state investigations into potential conflicts of interest and influence peddling involving his fiancée, green energy consultant Cylvia Hayes.

Oregon House Minority Leader Mike McLane, a Republican, insinuated during the final House debate on the bill that it might have been improperly influenced by Hayes. “We need to know who influenced who, and was that influence improper or illegal,” he said.

March 23, 2015

Vote-A-Rama And Aviation Hearings On Week’s Agenda

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker will testify at a House hearing Tuesday on air traffic control reform (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker will testify at a House hearing Tuesday on air traffic control reform (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

This week’s Senate action will feature the vote-a-rama, a series of dozens of votes on various policy proposals offered as amendments to the fiscal year 2016 budget resolution.

At least one transportation infrastructure amendment will be offered by Senate Democrats. But other transportation-related amendments may pop up as well, since the vote-a-rama is a kind of long-form improvised political theater.

Meanwhile on Tuesday the House Transportation Aviation Subcommittee will hold a hearing to examine options reforming the FAA’s air traffic control system, including possible creation of a private entity to run the system.

Witnesses include American Airlines CEO Doug Parker and Reason Foundation transportation policy director Robert Poole.

Also on Tuesday the Aviation Operations, Safety and Security Subcommittee of Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will have a hearing on unmanned aerial vehicles featuring Amazon’s vice president for global public policy Paul Misener and Michigan farmer Jeff VanderWerff who will be representing the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Last week the FAA gave an experimental airworthiness certificate to an Amazon Logistics, Inc. drone design that the company will use for research and development and crew training as it works its way toward drone delivery of packages.

On Wednesday the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security will look at how the Transportation Security Administration’s TSA PreCheck system is working.

Witnesses include the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, John Roth. The subcommittee chairman is first-term Rep. John Katko, a Republican holding what had been a Democratic seat in upstate New York and one of the Democrats’ top targets for 2016.

March 20, 2015

A Bipartisan Move To Strengthen Freight Rail Regulation

SEn. John Thune, R- S.D., is moving to strengthen freight rail regulation (Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call)

SEn. John Thune, R- S.D., is moving to strengthen freight rail regulation (Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call)

In the 1890’s the Populists complained that freight railroads were too powerful and charged farmers too much to ship their grain to market. Complaints about railroad power are being heard anew more than 100 years later.

As Bakken oil from North Dakota is shipped by rail, shipments of other commodities from cherries to corn to iron ore are being delayed, as a Senate hearing heard last September.

Sen. John Thune, R- S.D. and Sen. Bill Nelson, D – Fla., the chairman and ranking member of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, are responding to the complaints by co-sponsoring a bill to beef up the Surface Transportation Board, the regulatory agency responsible for matters such as railroad rates, mergers, and construction of new rail lines.

Their bill would expand the board from three to five members, give it new investigatory authority, and require the board to create a database of shippers’ complaints and quarterly reports.

National Association of Chemical Distributors president Eric Byer said, “Chairman Thune has worked hard over the years to ensure a level playing field for rail shippers, which includes 40 percent of all chemical distributors. NACD thanks him for being committed to holding the railroad industry accountable….”

March 19, 2015

Will Musk Have The Antidote To ‘Range Anxiety’?

Elon Musk, co-founder and CEO of Tesla Motors.  (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Elon Musk, co-founder and CEO of Tesla Motors. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Elon Musk, chief executive officer of electric car maker Tesla, will announce at a press conference Thursday plans that he has “to end range anxiety,” as he put it on Twitter Tuesday.

The lack of recharging stations makes electric car drivers fret that they may not make it to their destination, a topic discussed at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in January.

On the coldest days of the year, electric vehicles suffer a more than 40 percent decrease in their range, according to one researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. That may limit the interest in buying electric vehicles in colder weather states.

Musk also caused a flurry of comment this week with his prediction that “when self-driving cars become safer than human-driven cars, the public may outlaw the latter.”

He added, “Hopefully not.”

His speculation about autonomous vehicles wasn’t original. Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute made much the same observation last year.

 

March 18, 2015

Boeing Union-Management Struggle Enters New Phase

The 787 Dreamliner on the assembly line at the Boeing factory in Everett, Wash. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

The 787 Dreamliner on the assembly line at the Boeing factory in Everett, Wash. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

The struggle between labor and capital at America’s premier commercial aircraft manufacturer has entered a new chapter.

This week the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), which represents many production line employees at Boeing plants in the state of Washington, said it has filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold an election for more than 2,400 production workers at Boeing’s non-union plant in North Charleston, S.C.

It’s now up to the NLRB to schedule an election.

Reacting to the NLRB filing, Beverly Wyse, Boeing South Carolina’s vice president and general manager, said it was the non-union workers at the South Carolina plant who made it a success.

This is also the week that Boeing delivered its first Dreamliner of the 787-9 series assembled in South Carolina to United Airlines.

“The IAM aggressively opposed” the South Carolina plant, Wyse said, “as publicly demonstrated by their filing of a claim with the National Labor Relations Board, to try to keep our site from even opening. Now, simply by filing this petition, the same union that tried to take our jobs and our work, has already begun to divide our team at a time when we’re just beginning to gel and catch a solid rhythm in production.”

Fervently anti-union in this battle is South Carolina’s Republican governor,Nikki Haley, who said in her State of the State speech in January, “Every time you hear a Seattle union boss carry on about how he has the best interests of the Boeing workers in Charleston at heart, remember this: if it was up to that same union boss, there would be no Boeing workers in Charleston.”

Meanwhile in Washington state, the legislature is considering a bill that would curtail a tax break for Boeing which Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law in 2013.

The tax break apparently helped persuade Boeing to keep work on the new version of the 777 in Everett, Wash.

Democratic state Rep. June Robinson is proposing to make the tax break conditional. She said, “If Boeing jobs leave the state, the tax break will gradually go away. If the jobs stay in Washington, Boeing keeps the tax break. It’s simple and it’s fair.”

According to the Everett Herald’s Jerry Cornfield, “Robinson’s bill is the handiwork of the unions representing machinists and aerospace engineers. It stems from frustration that the 2013 law didn’t stop layoffs or prevent Boeing from shifting hundreds of jobs to other states without penalty.”

March 17, 2015

U.S. Airlines’ Foreign Rivals Playing A Long Game

An Emirates Airline flight from Dubai lands at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. (Photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

An Emirates Airline flight from Dubai lands at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. (Photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

The Financial Times and other news organizations are reporting that low-cost European airline Ryanair will enter the transatlantic business. The Ryanair board has approved plans to start a transatlantic airline “with some one-way tickets expected to cost as little as £10,” or about $14.75 at current exchange rates.

But it will take up to five years for Ryanair to buy the aircraft and launch the new service.

Meanwhile U.S. carriers continue their efforts to get the Obama administration to put some limits on competitors such as Emirates Airline from the Persian Gulf.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the heads of Emirates and of Etihad Airlines are expected to address their battle with the U.S. carriers in speeches in Washington Tuesday.

“If Qatar and the United Arab Emirates continue giving their carriers billions of dollars in unfair subsidies, they will cannibalize American pilots’ jobs and undermine our nation’s aviation system,” said Tim Canoll, the president of the Air Lines Pilots Association (ALPA).

Three U.S. carriers, American, Delta, and United, and four unions including ALPA, have joined forces to launch the Partnership for Open & Fair Skies to carry on the propaganda battle against the Persian Gulf carriers.

The coalition announced that Jill Zuckman, who served as director of public affairs for the Department of Transportation under former Secretary Ray LaHood, will be its chief spokesman.

“As the CEOs of Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways and Emirates Airline arrive in Washington this week, they have a lot of explaining to do,” Zuckman said in her opening volley. “They need to explain how it is they have received more than $42 billion in subsidies and other unfair benefits from their governments over the past 10 years.”

March 16, 2015

Here’s The Need, Where’s The Money?

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., will chair a hearing on the TSA budget for FY 2016 Tuesday. (Photo By Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., will chair a hearing on the TSA budget for FY 2016 Tuesday. (Photo By Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)

Congress is another week closer to the May deadline for re-authorizing highway and mass transit spending.

What that means: if lawmakers don’t pass an authorization bill before May ends, then the Highway Trust Fund would be paying out money to the states at a much slower pace than normal, which would hinder or halt projects during the spring and summer construction season.

This week most of the Obama administration’s transportation officials will be testifying on Capitol Hill at appropriations hearings.

Tuesday the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security hears from Melvin Carraway, acting administrator of the Transportation Security Administration about the Obama administration’s Fiscal Year 2016 TSA budget request and issues such as the effectiveness of the TSA’s Pre-Check program for trusted travelers.

The chairwoman of the panel is Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R- N.H., who is up for re-election in 2016.

Meanwhile the Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta will testify to the House appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies.

Also Tuesday, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee gets the state and local perspective from North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, and  Wyoming Department of Transportation director John Cox.

On Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx testifies before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation.

Finally on Thursday, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation hears from Gregory Nadeau, acting head of the Federal Highway Administration, Therese McMillan, acting head of the Federal Transit Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Mark Rosekind, and Maritime Administration chief Paul Jaenichen.

The administration witnesses are sure to make the case for budget certainty and for a long-term infrastructure funding solution. The latter is looking less and less likely in 2015.

March 13, 2015

Heitkamp Presses OIRA To Finish Oil Train Rules

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., center, is urging OIRA to "quickly finalize" regulations on rail shipment of crude oil. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., center, is urging OIRA to “quickly finalize” regulations on rail shipment of crude oil. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

“Oh Ira, why can’t you work more quickly?” That might’ve been what tunesmith George Gershwin said to his lyric-writing brother Ira Gershwin. But for transportation purposes, it’s essentially what Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D- N.D., said Thursday to OIRA – pronounced “oh-Ira” – the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, within the Office of Management and Budget.

OIRA is where proposed regulations go for a final vetting and it now has under review a series of proposed rules on more robust oil tank cars and safer transport of crude oil.

In a letter to OMB director Shaun Donovan, Heitkamp urged OIRA to “quickly finalize” the regulations so that shippers and first responders can know what they must do to more safely ship crude oil. Much of that oil comes from the Bakken formation in Heitkamp’s state and in Montana and is carried by rail to refineries on the East Coast and the West Coast.

She cited the December 2013 derailment, explosion and fire in Casselton, N.D., noting that while no one was killed in that incident “we were lucky… but we cannot depend on luck.”

Meanwhile House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking member Peter A. DeFazio, D- Ore., has asked the Government Accountability Office to report to him on what railroads and the federal government are doing to prepare for an oil train derailment and fire “particularly in the most remote and environmentally sensitive areas”

DeFazio specifically asked the GAO to examine what the railroads are doing to preposition “critical resources necessary to respond to spills in both urban and rural areas, including forest lands, with limited road access, prone to catastrophic fire, or at-risk due to long-term drought” and to preposition “critical resources to contain and clean-up oil spills into rivers or other water bodies.”

As the Oregonian reported last year, “Eighteen oil trains a week move along the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge.” Part of the gorge is a national scenic area and it borders national forests.

March 12, 2015

Canadian Government Proposes Safer Oil Tank Cars

Firefighters douse blazes after a train loaded with oil derailed in Lac-Megantic in Quebec on July 6, 2013. Forty-seven people were killed in the accident. (Photo: François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)

Firefighters douse blazes after a train loaded with oil derailed in Lac-Megantic in Quebec on July 6, 2013. Forty-seven people were killed in the accident. (Photo: François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)

While oil shippers, railroads, mayors, and emergency responders across the United States wait for the Obama administration to issue new rules on oil tank car safety, the Canadian government has moved to issue its own rules, which may prefigure what’s coming in the United States.

The proposed standards from Transport Canada, the Canadian regulatory agency, mandate a tank car shell thickness of 9/16th of an inch, instead of 7/16 of an inch on older tank cars now in service.

The thicker tank car shell would provide improved puncture resistance if there’s a derailment, the Canadian government said.

Canada would also require shields at the head of the tank car to protect it from puncture.

The announcement said, “Transport Canada recognizes the integrated nature of rail transport in North America” and has taken note of recommendations from industry groups “that a harmonized standard [with the United States] is essential.”

Transport Canada said it is continuing to collaborate with U.S. regulatory agencies to develop stricter requirements for tank cars in North America.

Association of American Railroads president Edward Hamberger said his group was “pleased with Transport Canada’s sensible approach of expediting the rule-making process… to help provide greater certainty in the rail car marketplace.”

Members of Congress have complained about the slowness of the Obama administration rulemaking process on oil tank car safety. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the proposed rule is now out of his department’s hands and being scrutinized by officials at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs which does a cost benefit analysis of proposed regulations.

March 11, 2015

Korean Air ‘Nut Rage’ Will Get Re-Airing In Civil Suit

Former Korean Air Lines executive Cho Hyun-Ah, center, is surrounded by reporters in Seoul on Dec. 30, 2014 after a hearing to review an arrest warrant application on charges of violating aviation safety laws. (Photo: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

Former Korean Air Lines executive Cho Hyun-Ah, center, is surrounded by reporters in Seoul on Dec. 30, 2014 after a hearing to review an arrest warrant application on charges of violating aviation safety laws. (Photo: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

“Nut rage” is an evocative phrase, a gift to headline writers – but the phrase also denotes a serious incident at Kennedy Airport in New York last December when Korean Air executive vice president Cho Hyun-ah delayed the departure of a flight after ordering the plane back to the gate and telling a senior crew member to get off.

Cho, the eldest daughter of company chairman Cho Yang-ho is serving a prison sentence in South Korea for her actions in the incident.

She was angered that flight attendant Kim Do-hee and a senior crew member did not know the correct procedure for serving macadamia nuts.

Nut rage will live on in a civil suit filed by Kim in Queens County, New York, where Kennedy Airport is located. The suit alleges that Cho screamed at, shoved, and threatened Kim, and has damaged her career, reputation, and emotional well-being.

March 10, 2015

Houston Ship Mishap & Bicyclists To Honor Oberstar

Former House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman James Oberstar, left, with Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, D- Ore.

Former House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman James Oberstar, left, with Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, D- Ore.

We hear a lot about congestion on the rails as oil and other products move across the county. But there’s heavy traffic on waterways as well, as an accident Monday in the Houston Ship Channel indicated.

A Venezuela-bound tanker spilled the gasoline additive MTBE into the Channel, one of the nation’s crucial transportation choke points, after hitting another vessel, shutting down part of the waterway.

In a recent report, the Center for Strategic and International Studies said increased traffic of oil and perhaps liquefied natural gas exports in the coming years may result in “an (over)taxing of Gulf Coast pipelines, ports, storage facilities, ship channels, and ships themselves – and that does not even take into consideration any delays caused by accidents or storms….”

Back on dry land, the League of American Bicyclists is starting its 15th annual summit in Washington, bringing together advocates from around the nation to urge Congress to keep funding bike trails in this year’s surface transportation bill and to appreciate the value of bicycles in transportation planning.

The League has a lobby day scheduled for Thursday at the Capitol and a “Jim Oberstar Memorial Ride” set for Friday. Oberstar was a dedicated bicyclist and the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from 2007 to 2011. He died last May.

March 9, 2015

Survival Of New D.C. Streetcar Now In Doubt

The H Street streetcar in Washington, D.C., still being tested   (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

The H Street streetcar in Washington, D.C., still being tested (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Just as Arlington County, Va., cancelled its planned streetcar line three months ago, so too may its much bigger neighbor across the Potomac River, Washington, D.C.

WAMU’s Martin Di Caro and the Washington Post’s Michael Laris have both reported on the doubts raised by the city’s new transportation chief, Leif A. Dormsjo, about whether, despite the sunk cost of as much as $200 million, a new streetcar line along H Street in northeast Washington is really worth keeping alive.

The streetcar has been doing test runs for several months, but has yet to carry any customers.

“I’m trying to prudently and responsibly prepare the service to be started. But if I can’t get to that point, I’m not going to be enchanted by some philosophy of transit that leads me to do something that doesn’t make sense,” Dormsjo told the Post.

“This project over 10 years was developed in an unprofessional, haphazard, contradictory and inconsistent manner,” he said.

Light rail and street cars have been a favored mode for Obama administration transportation planners.

Although more capital intensive than bus systems, light rail and street cars dominate the list of 53 mass transit projects funded or under consideration in the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program. Of the 53 projects, 30 of them were light rail or street car projects.

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