Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
January 26, 2015

January 26, 2015

Week Ahead: The State Of Freight Rail, Boeing’s Future

An Air New Zealand 787-9 Dreamliner (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

An Air New Zealand 787-9 Dreamliner (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

Freight rail efficiency and the resilience of the nation’s infrastructure will be getting attention this week as will the continuing saga of falling oil prices.

Monday

Norfolk Southern, which serves 22 states mostly east of the Mississippi, announces its quarterly earnings. The railroad is a big carrier of coal and serves 24 automobile assembly plants, 14 of which belong to Ford, Chrysler and General Motors, according to Standard & Poor’s.

Tuesday

January is far away on the calendar from hurricane season but catastrophic storms like Super Storm Sandy in 2012 do have a lasting cost for federal and state governments by wrecking expensive infrastructure.

Case in point: the South Ferry subway station in Lower Manhattan was underwater for a week and was severely damaged by Sandy, which arrived just three years after a $500 million project to modernize that station had been completed.

A House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee panel holds a hearing on how to reduce the impact of catastrophe storms and accelerate recovery from them. On the witness list: current Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Craig Fugate and former FEMA head David Paulison.

Wednesday

Aircraft maker Boeing announces its earnings for the fourth quarter of its fiscal year.

Boeing CEO Jim McNerney said last October that oil prices would need to fall “a long way from where we are now” before “you begin to see even [an] incremental impact” on airlines’ demand for more fuel-efficient aircraft.

But the price of crude has fallen from about $85 a barrel in October to less than $50 a barrel today.

Boeing delivered a record 723 commercial aircraft to airlines in 2014. One Boeing executive recently said annual deliveries “will grow easily to over 900 over the next few years.”

One reason Boeing can meet the booming demand is its non-union plant in North Charleston, S.C.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is trying to dissuade Boeing workers in her state from joining the union which represents Boeing workers in Washington state.

Also Wednesday morning, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee holds a hearing on safety and efficiency on freight railroads.

Among the witnesses are Frank Lonero of CSX Transportation and Chris Jahn, president of The Fertilizer Institute.

January 23, 2015

A Look Back At The Week: Drone Delays, Smoky Subway

A consultant holds a drone made by HiTec during the first-ever Drone Expo in Los Angeles on December 13, 2014.  (Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

A consultant holds a drone made by HiTec during the first-ever Drone Expo in Los Angeles on December 13, 2014. (Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

We spent a lot of time this week reporting on something that’s up in the air: the yet-to-be-issued notice of proposed rule-making (NPRM) for small remotely piloted aircraft, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles.

That NPRM will be a big step as the Federal Aviation Administration moves toward a final rule allowing commercial use of drones.

But the FAA may not issue a final rule until 2017 – which drone industry ally Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D- Ore. says is “unacceptable.”

Michael Drobac, head of the Small UAV Coalition, said “technology is being stifled in the U.S., but only in the U.S.”

At a House hearing Wednesday the FAA’s man in charge of UAV integration James Williams said the rule must “go through the regulatory process that has been put in place by Congress and we’re working our way through that.” He added, “You’ve got to understand this is a very complex rulemaking.”

Meanwhile airports were one part of the nation’s infrastructure that did not get explicit mention by President Obama in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night – but Congress is going to pass or at least try to pas, an FAA reauthorization bill this year and it could embody significant policy changes.

On the ground or below it, travelers are at risk in our nation’s capital as a fatal Jan. 12 smoke incident on the Metro made dramatically apparent.

D.C.-area members of Congress are pledging to keep a wary watch over Metro managers as they work to fix the safety problems.

Veasey Joins Graves At General Aviation Caucus Helm

 Rep. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Texas. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Texas. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Texas Democrat Rep. Marc Veasey will be the new co-chairman of the House General Aviation Caucus, joining Rep. Sam Graves, R- Mo.

First elected to the House in 2012, Veasey represents a district that includes parts of Fort Worth and Dallas. He said he’d work to increase “awareness about how important general aviation is to our economy and industrial base, totaling a more than $14 billion impact in Texas and over $150 billion nationally.”

Full story

After sand growth, Union Pacific warily eyes oil prices

A pump jack and frac tanks stand in a field being developed for drilling in the Monterey Shale formation where hydraulic fracturing is done near Lost Hills, Calif. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

A pump jack and frac tanks stand in a field being developed for drilling in the Monterey Shale formation where hydraulic fracturing is done near Lost Hills, Calif. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

In its fourth quarter earnings conference call Thursday, Union Pacific reported an impressive 35 percent increase in its volume of shipments of sand used in fracking.

But oil prices have plummeted and the outlook for fracking growth in the United States in 2015 seems doubtful.

Union Pacific executive vice president Eric Butler told analysts that in the fourth quarter, the railroad’s crude oil shipments were up 7 percent compared to the same period in 2013.

“We saw gains in shipments from the Niobrara and Uinta Basins which more than offset continued weakness in Bakken shipments” caused by falling prices.

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NTSB Wants Devices To Prevent Flight Disappearances

Origami cranes hang on a board offering prayers and condolences to the Malaysia Airlines MH370 and MH17 victims and their families at a bereavement centre in Kuala Lumpur last September (Photo: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

Origami cranes hang on a board offering prayers and condolences to the Malaysia Airlines MH370 and MH17 victims and their families at a bereavement centre in Kuala Lumpur last September (Photo: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

The National Transportation Safety Board is recommending to the Federal Aviation Administration that it require aircraft on trans-oceanic routes be equipped with devices that will allow searchers to find them if they crash.

The recommendations come more than 10 months after the still-unexplained disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 with 239 passengers and crew on board while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

The NTSB noted in letter to FAA administrator Michael Huerta that the searchers for the plane “have analyzed and mapped more than 41,000 square kilometers of ocean floor” without finding the aircraft’s cockpit voice recorder, flight data recorder, or wreckage.

The NTSB is also responding to the nearly two-year search for the recorders from an Air France flight which crashed en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009, killing all 228 people on board. The NTSB said it cost about $40 million to find the flight recorders in that case.

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January 22, 2015

FAA Urged To Move Faster On Technology Certification

Boeing Commercial Airplanes President and CEO Ray Conner  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Boeing Commercial Airplanes President and CEO Ray Conner (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Just as the Federal Aviation Administration is under pressure from Congress to move more quickly on writing rules for commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles, so too with an older industry: passenger airplanes.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster opened a hearing Wednesday on the FAA’s methods of certifying aircraft equipment by complaining that some of what the agency does “seems to be process simply for the sake of process.” Products and technology that can make aircraft safer “are often caught in a bureaucratic maze,” he said.

FAA is slower that agencies in other countries, Shuster said, which puts U.S. companies at a disadvantage to foreign competitors.

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After Fatal Subway Accident, Members Vow Vigilance

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The phalanx of four senators and seven House members who showed up the Mansfield Room in the Capitol on Wednesday night usually deal with big-picture issues like Iran’s nuclear weapons’ ambitions.

But Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and her colleagues from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia were there instead in the role of local government officials, showing their determination to prevent another episode on the Washington, D.C. Metro system such as the Jan. 12 “electrical arcing event” that killed a passenger and left others seriously injured.

They don’t get to appoint Metro’s managers, but they do supply some of the funding for a mass transit system which has proven to be hazardous to the lives and health of their constituents.

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FAA Official Refuses To Give Date For UAV Rule

A small remote controlled aircraft is demonstrated during a press conference by the Small UAV Coalition in Washington on Tuesday. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

A small remote controlled aircraft is demonstrated during a press conference by the Small UAV Coalition in Washington on Tuesday. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith tried hard at a hearing Wednesday to get the Federal Aviation Administration to say when it will issue its rule on commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicle.

But James Williams, the FAA official in charge of integrating UAVs into the nation’s airspace, repeatedly refused to commit to a date.

“Mr. Williams, when might we expect the FAA to propose some rules?” Smith asked at a hearing of the committee on the UAV industry.

Williams said the FAA is working with its partners in the Obama administration, such as the Office of Management and Budget, and the agency is “doing everything we can to get that small unmanned aircraft rule out, but our main focus is to get it right.”

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January 21, 2015

Infrastructure Funding Deal Not Yet Clear

President Obama arrives in the House chamber to deliver his State of the Union address on Tuesday night. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

President Obama arrives in the House chamber to deliver his State of the Union address on Tuesday night. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

What was not made clear in President Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night was whether he’d be willing to sign a stand-alone bill to use profits of U.S. corporations now held overseas to pay for infrastructure.

Would he instead insist on a bill that included some of the tax increases that the White House sketched out over the weekend such as higher tax rates on dividends and capital gains?

Obama said Tuesday night that Congress must “close loopholes so we stop rewarding companies that keep profits abroad, and reward those that invest in America.”

The idea of using an overhaul of corporate taxes to come up with revenue for infrastructure was an element of his $302 billion Grow America Act unveiled last April.

But it’s an open question whether the president would sign a bill along the lines of the Partnership to Build America Act sponsored by Rep. John Delaney, D-Md. and Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R- Pa.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Rep. Michael Bennet, D- Colo. have introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

The measure would let U.S. companies repatriate some of their overseas profits tax free if they invested them in infrastructure bonds.

Despite later in the speech lamenting the use of “gotcha” moments in politics, Obama took an opportunity to ding the proponents of the Keystone XL oil pipeline by saying “let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline; let’s pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than 30 times as many jobs per year” as the Keystone XL project.

Absent from Obama’s speech was any mention of the simplest, but politically unpalatable, expedient of raising the gasoline tax to pay for a new infrastructure bill. Obama did not join the chorus of those saying, ‘why not raise gasoline taxes since the price at the pump is now so low?’

As infrastructure advocates wait for the repatriation-for-infrastructure details to be worked out, their goals haven’t changed.

As American Road & Transportation Builders Association president Pete Ruane said Tuesday night, what they seek is “a long-term revenue stream to ensure state governments have the reliable federal partner they need to make overdue improvements to America’s roads, bridges and transit systems.”

And Patrick Jones, CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, said Obama and Congress ought to give states “greater flexibility to meet their individual transportation funding needs—including the right to use tolling on their existing Interstate highways for the purpose of reconstruction.”

Airports Missing From Obama SOTU Infrastructure List

President Obama greets House Speaker John Boehner, as Vice President Biden looks on, in the House chamber before Obama delivered his State of the Union address. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

President Obama greets House Speaker John Boehner, as Vice President Biden looks on, in the House chamber before Obama delivered his State of the Union address. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The term “infrastructure” got five mentions from President Obama in his State of the Union address Tuesday night and he cited three transportation modes in particular: shipping (ports), highways (“stronger bridges”), and “faster trains.”

One infrastructure word not in Obama’s speech Tuesday was “airports.”

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January 20, 2015

Drone Industry Leaders Urge Regulatory Speed-Up

An attendee handles an RC EYE Navigator 250 drone from RC Logger at the 2015 International CES consumer technology trade show on Jan. 8, 2015 in Las Vegas. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

An attendee handles an RC EYE Navigator 250 drone from RC Logger at the 2015 International CES consumer technology trade show on Jan. 8, 2015 in Las Vegas. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Leaders of the unmanned aerial vehicle industry are out in force in Washington this week, hoping to convince members of Congress to take a hand in speeding up a regulatory process that’s holding back U.S.-based commercial drone makers and software providers.

At the National Press Club Tuesday, companies did indoor test flights of their drones and industry activists listened to pre-lobbying coaching from their leaders and allies.

Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition and a policy adviser at Washington’s Akin Gump law firm, told his members that they face big regulatory hurdles and that “it’s incumbent upon us to go to those regulatory officials and to lawmakers to present the pathway to safe and responsible integration of UAVs into the airspace.”

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Could Obama’s Tax Proposal Help Infrastructure?

President Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Jan. 28, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

President Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Jan. 28, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

In a pre-State of the Union hors d’oeuvre, President Obama offered over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend a proposal to increase the tax rates on capital gains and dividends, to change the rule on assets that pass to an heir, and to impose a fee on the liabilities of large U.S. financial firms.

The chance of these revenue-raising ideas being enacted by a Republican Congress seems slim. That raises the question of whether Obama’s proposals become part of his negotiations with congressional Republicans on corporate tax reform, or whether they’re more in the nature of an ideological statement and end up being a diversion from tax reform?

Could some of the ideas which Obama offered end up as ingredients in a compromise tax deal?

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January 19, 2015

Week Ahead: Obama Agenda Setter And New Governors

Maryland Governor-elect Larry Hogan, at the microphone, flanked by other newly elected governors outside the White House after meeting with President Obama on Dec. 5, 2014.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Maryland Governor-elect Larry Hogan, at the microphone, flanked by other newly elected governors outside the White House after meeting with President Obama on Dec. 5, 2014. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

This week features the president’s attempt to steer the agenda with his State of the Union address, as well as a focus in Washington on unmanned aerial vehicles. That industry and members of Congress impatiently await a proposed rule on commercial drone use from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Tuesday

At the National Press Club in Washington, the Small UAV Coalition holds a discussion and drone demonstration with industry representatives including Jesse Kallman, head of business development and regulatory affairs at the flight control software maker Airware and Lucas van Oostrum, co-founder and chief technology officer at Dutch drone manufacturer Aerialtronics.

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January 16, 2015

A Look Back At Our Week: It’s Just Congestion All Over

Traffic jam in Mill Valley, Calif., this one caused by rain and flooding. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Traffic jam in Mill Valley, Calif., this one caused by rain and flooding. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Congestion. Transportation planners spend their lives analyzing it and trying to devise ways to relieve it.

Especially with lots of transportation wonks in Washington this week for the 94th annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board, we heard much expert discussion about congestion on the highways, in our cities, and at our seaports.

On the highways, HNTB’s congestion pricing guru Matthew Click gave us his thoughts on why the San Francisco Bay area is the most interesting place in country in 2015 to watch for development of toll lanes.

Once you exit the highway and arrive in the big city, you may face the question: where can I find a place to park?

We heard from urban planners at the TRB meeting who find that, in fact, parking is much over-supplied in many cities. Maybe not in midtown Manhattan at high noon on a weekday, but in small and mid-sized cities.

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Gasoline Tax Increase Not Gaining Momentum

House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, right, with Speaker John A. Boehner, before the 114th Congress was sworn in on the House floor, Jan. 6, 2015. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, right, with Speaker John A. Boehner, before the 114th Congress was sworn in on the House floor, Jan. 6, 2015. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

“We won’t pass a gas tax increase,” House Ways and Means Committee chairman Rep. Paul Ryan told reporters Thursday at the Republican retreat in Hershey, Pa.

That was almost immediately after he said, “We would like to have a long-term highway bill, but we’ve got to see how we can for pay it.”

Ryan left the door open to a corporate tax overhaul that might raise revenue for infrastructure, an idea which last year he said has merit.

So, for the major players on the Republican side, here’s an updated scorecard on their recent comments on infrastructure financing:

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