Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 1, 2015

Posts in "Environment"

January 30, 2015

A Look Back: Cuomo, Coons, Coal, Climate Change

A bulldozer operates atop a coal mound in Shelbiana, Ky. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)

A bulldozer operates atop a coal mound in Shelbiana, Ky. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)

This week we looked at the buzz over a new revenue source for the nation’s highways and transit systems. Sen. Rand Paul, R- Ky., Sen. Barbara Boxer, D- Calif., Rep. John Delaney, D- Md., and others are proposing ways to tax repatriated profits and fill the Highway Trust Fund.

Think big – $170 billion, Delaney says. We’re a long way from a committee markup, but things seem to be moving.

We also used the appearance of Henry Kissinger before the Senate Armed Services Committee to revisit the perennial struggle of “guns versus butter,” or America’s overseas commitments versus its domestic needs (like subways, buses, and tunnels).

Kissinger once worked for a man who said, “Until we make public transportation an attractive alternative to private car use, we will never be able to build highways fast enough to avoid congestion.” That was in 1969. Are we there yet?

As well as congestion this week we also examined Cuomo, climate change, Chris Coons, and coal.

In that order:

  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York ordered highways closed and commuter railroad and subway service to halt at 11pm Monday in the face of a blizzard, which in the end turned out to be a bit underwhelming, at least in New York. We looked at the economic winners and losers from the storm.
  • The Senate voted to disagree with the idea that “more frequent and intense extreme weather events” are damaging the nation’s highways, subways, and ports. It voted to kill an amendment to the Keystone XL pipeline bill offered by Sen. Chris Coons, D- Del., that he said “simply acknowledges that climate change is having an impact on our infrastructure” and doesn’t blame humans for it.
  • Burning coal to produce electricity allowed me to write this and allows you to read it, at least if you’re in one of the regions of the country where coal is heavily used, as in the Mid-Atlantic States. Burning coal produces carbon dioxide and, many scientists say, it contributes to climate change.

But railroads make money by moving coal from mine to power plant.

We heard this week from Norfolk Southern how a decline in coal shipments is hurting the railroad’s bottom line.

Overseas Cash Alluring Idea For Infrastructure Funds

Rep. John Delaney, D - Md., during his 2012 campaign. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. John Delaney, D – Md., during his 2012 campaign. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

In his Fiscal Year 2015 budget last March, President Obama said he wanted to use “one-time transition revenue resulting from business tax reform” to pay for highways, roads and transit systems.

Now Rep. John Delaney, D- Md., has introduced a bill that fills in details of a concept about which Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, and several others have been thinking aloud: pay for infrastructure with tax revenue from repatriated profits of U.S. corporations.

But Delaney said his bill is “much more comprehensive” than what Obama sketched out last March.

Delaney’s measure would impose an 8.75 percent tax on overseas profits and would, he said, raise $170 billion, more than enough to both fill the shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund for six years and to create a new $50 billion infrastructure funding entity.

It would also give Congress what he called “a nice long runway” for lawmakers to devise ways to cope with the anticipated decline in revenues from taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel.

Full story

January 29, 2015

Kissinger A Reminder Of Strategic/Transit Trade-Offs

Protesters confront former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Protesters confront former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The connection between international strategy and mass transit might seem tenuous.

But Thursday’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on Iran, nuclear weapons, and related matters was a reminder of the lasting tension between spending money on domestic needs, such as transit, and overseas commitments.

In 1969, Kissinger faced the same choices when he served as President Nixon’s national security.

In his memoirs, White House Years, Kissinger writes that he and Nixon in 1969 had to decide what U.S. strategy would be in Europe to defend against potential Russian, (or Soviet as it was then) aggression.

One option was to build up U.S. nuclear forces based in Europe; another option was to build up U.S. conventional (non-nuclear) forces stationed there. Full story

Senate Rejects Climate Change Infrastructure Measure

Sen. Chris Coons, D- Del., answers questions from reporters (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Chris Coons, D- Del., answers questions from reporters (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate went on record Wednesday as disagreeing with the idea that “more frequent and intense extreme weather events” are damaging the nation’s roads, bridges, railroads, and ports.

This was despite the billions of dollars in damage to the subways, highways, and other infrastructure in New York and New Jersey by Super Storm Sandy in 2012, to cite just one case.

By a vote of 47 to 51, with 60 votes needed for passage, the Senate rejected a sense of the Senate amendment to the Keystone XL pipeline bill offered by Sen. Chris Coons, D- Del., which wouldn’t have directly affected funding or regulation, but which included the perhaps fatal words “climate change.”

Coons tried to assuage opposition by noting “this amendment does not speak to the human role in climate change or emissions; it simply acknowledges that climate change is having an impact on our infrastructure.”

Full story

January 28, 2015

Boeing: Fuel Savings Not Sole Factor In Aircraft Buys

Crews work on the engine of an Air New Zealand Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner last summer in Everett, Wash. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

Crews work on the engine of an Air New Zealand Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner last summer in Everett, Wash. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

Lower oil prices have not changed airlines’ plans to buy fuel-efficient Boeing airplanes, Boeing CEO Jim McNerney said Wednesday.

“We see low fuel prices and positive traffic trends as beneficial to our industry and growth prospects,” McNerney said during a conference call with investment analysts and reporters.

He said fuel efficiency isn’t the sole factor in airlines’ decisions to buy new planes.

McNerney said last October, when oil prices were at about $85 a barrel, that they 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.

The Brent global benchmark is now under $50 a barrel.

Full story

January 27, 2015

As Blizzard Hits, Cuomo Bans Travel

Men delivering packages struggle in blowing snow in Manhattan's financial district on Monday as the city braced itself for a blizzard. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Men delivering packages struggle in blowing snow in Manhattan’s financial district on Monday as the city braced itself for a blizzard. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A massive nor’easter was hitting New York, New Jersey, and New England Monday night and Tuesday. That means that mass transit and the highways, at least in the New York City area, were closed, as of 11pm Monday.

In a press briefing late Monday afternoon, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat just elected to his second term, said he’d ordered commuter railroad and subway service to stop at 11pm Monday to allow train cars to be moved to safe storage locations “so that when the weather does leave we’re in a position for the system to start back up.”

He said the city and state had learned from Superstorm Sandy in 2012 that it was far better to protect subway and commuter trains so that service could be resumed as quickly as possible.

He also ordered a travel ban on highways and roads in a 13-county area, including the five boroughs of New York City, except for emergency vehicles.

“If you violate this state order it’s a possible misdemeanor; it’s fines up to $300,” he told a press conference.

Full story

January 26, 2015

Decline in Coal Shipments Hurting Norfolk Southern

A coal mound at the coal-fired Big Sandy Power Plant in Cattletsburg, Ky.  (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)

A coal mound at the coal-fired Big Sandy Power Plant in Cattletsburg, Ky. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)

Coal is still the single biggest source of energy for the electricity that makes it possible for you to read this story.

In 2014, coal supplied 39 percent of U.S. electricity generation.

And despite all you’ve read about rail shipments of crude oil, coal is “still by far the largest commodity volume moved by rail,” according to the Energy Information Administration, with about seven times more carloads of coal shipped than carloads of oil.

When your business relies on shipping coal, as does Norfolk Southern’s, it hurts when utilities to switch from coal to natural gas. So it was no surprise that coal was a dominant theme of the fourth quarter earnings conference call that Norfolk Southern executives did with investment analysts Monday.

Full story

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

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.

Full story

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.”

Full story

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.

Full story

January 15, 2015

Tolling Expert Sees Bay Area as Place to Watch in 2015

This week we asked Matthew Click, vice president and director of priced managed lanes for HNTB, an infrastructure design and construction management company, what he thinks will be the most interesting place in country in 2015 to watch for development of toll lanes and congestion pricing.

Click’s choice: the San Francisco Bay area.

Here are the points he made: Full story

January 14, 2015

Planners Seek To ‘Get Prices Right’ On Parking

San Francisco parking meter. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

San Francisco parking meter. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Transportation analysts spend a lot of time talking about what they call “getting prices right.”

They see some transportation assets (un-tolled highways, for example) as underpriced and over-used.

They see other assets people consider “free” (the space in airplanes’ overhead luggage bins, for instance) which should be priced in order to produce revenue and reveal their true cost.

Underpriced assets lead to what economists call “negative externalities” – overuse, congestion, pollution, and other costs which users impose on society without being made to fully pay for those costs.

(The head of the International Energy Agency sounded a similar note last July by suggesting to Americans that their gasoline prices were too low and “may be encouraging wasteful consumption.”)

So too with urban parking, a topic transportation analysts took on at the Transportation Research Board annual meeting Tuesday.

Full story

Would You Sell Your ‘Tradable Driving Rights’?

Drivers and pedestrians in Manhattan last fall.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Drivers and pedestrians in Manhattan last fall. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Imagine you live in Manhattan 30 years from now, and as a resident of that island, you own something very valuable which you could sell to your hard-pressed fellow residents: the right to drive.

In this scenario, you and your fellow Manhattanites live under a government-imposed limit on how many miles you can drive.

(Don’t confuse this with the plot of the 1981 Isaac Hayes cult classic Escape from New York, in which Manhattan has become the only maximum security prison for the entire country.)

If you don’t choose to drive, you could sell your driving rights to another Manhattanite who wants to drive. Both of you end up better off and the total number of miles driven remains under the limit.

Full story

January 12, 2015

Looking Into The Future On Electric Vehicle Adoption

An electric vehicle charging station near the San Francisco city hall.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

An electric vehicle charging station near the San Francisco city hall. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

With gasoline now below $2 a gallon in many parts of the country, it might not seem like the most urgent priority to consider electric vehicles.

But the analysts who spoke at Monday’s panel on electric cars at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board were looking not primarily at today but 30 and 40 years into the future.

Major takeaways from the panelists:

  • One baseline scenario is the electric vehicles won’t be more than five percent of vehicles on the road, unless there are big decreases in the cost of batteries and much higher oil prices than the Energy Information Administration forecast for the next few decades.

Using a systems dynamics model, Dawn Manley of the Sandia National Laboratories tested a number of scenarios, including one that was very favorable to electric vehicle adoption by consumers.

“What if batteries were nearly free out into the future, 25 or 30 years from now? What if people who were willing to pay [a higher price for an electric car] had a longer payback period that they were willing to consider?”

The typical consumer is willing to wait three years to recover the higher cost of a higher-priced alternative technology. What if they were willing to consider a nine-year payback period?” And what if oil prices were much higher than they are today or under EIA projections? Then market penetration could reach 20 percent.

  • Support for home recharging should take priority over workplace charging and building more public recharging stations, according to Jonn Axsen, a researcher at the Energy and Materials Research Group at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

Market failures have locked drivers into a fossil fuel-based infrastructure, said Axsen. “We need a strong climate policy” which should include a carbon tax to stimulate innovation on batteries and recharging facilities, for example.

  • For the most cost-effective deployment of public recharging stations, “it’s all about finding the hot spots,” said John Smart of the Idaho National Laboratory, that is specific locations where vehicle ownership supports big demand, places like the San Francisco Airport and the Fred Meyer store in Kirkland, Wash.

Most of the electric vehicle recharging infrastructure that was built with money from the 2009 stimulus act was not used, but the data gathered from those projects can be used to identify and perhaps predict where the demand for public recharging stations will be, Smart said.

  • On the coldest days of the year, today’s electric vehicles suffer more than a 40 percent decrease in their range, said Tugce Yuksel of Carnegie Mellon University.

That decrease in battery performance and range may limit the customer interest in buying electric vehicles in colder weather states, such as those in the Upper Midwest and Upper Plains states.

And as it currently stands, electric vehicle sales are highest in states with milder winters in their urban areas such as Washington state and California.

According to Yuksel, a round trip in an electric vehicle from Washington to Baltimore and back could be done in an electric vehicle, but on a very cold day the driver would need to stop and re-charge on his return trip from Baltimore, adding up to two hours to the total duration of the trip.

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