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

Posts in "Transit"

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.

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

January 28, 2015

Blizzard Economics Creates Winners And Losers

Snow covers a car in Cambridge, Mass. on Tuesday. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Snow covers a car in Cambridge, Mass. on Tuesday. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The blizzard that hit parts of the Northeast Tuesday may have been a bit of bust for New York City (9.8 inches in Central Park) and led to charges that Gov. Andrew Cuomo over-reached by ordering roads and mass transit to be shut down at 11pm Monday.

But the nor’easter dumped a lot of snow on places such as Southampton, N.Y. (29 inches) and Groton, Conn. (24 inches).

And according to the U.S. Travel Association, the cancelled flights cost the economy $230 million in passengers’ lost activity.

Each cancelled domestic flight costs the economy $31,600, according to a formula U.S. Travel researchers developed. The estimate is based on airline traffic and on-time data, air traveler behavior and other data collected through surveys, and U.S. Travel proprietary economic models.

The figure accounts for the passengers on more than 7,000 cancelled flights and the spending they would otherwise inject into the economy, but it does not calculate the impact on the airline industry.

Then again, storms such as Tuesday’s do create value for some people and some sectors of the economy.

In cities and towns from New Jersey to Maine there are tens of thousands of dollars spent on plowing and salting the roads. In one part of Massachusetts, hired contract plowers are paid $75 to $140 an hour. Full story

Left Versus Right On How To Build Infrastructure

Traffic on Interstate Highway 110 through downtown Los Angeles. (Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images)

Traffic on Interstate Highway 110 through downtown Los Angeles. (Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images)

Two sharply contrasting views of transportation policy were on display in Washington Tuesday.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, I- Vt., announced his Rebuild America Act, a $1 trillion, five-year plan to repair and build transit systems, bridges, highways, railroads, ports, the national electric power grid, and national parks.

He did not include financing proposals in the bill.

“What I wanted to do was focus on the need to build the infrastructure and not start the debate right away on how we fund it. There are many ways to fund it and honest people can have honest differences of opinion,” Sanders told reporters.

Sanders serves on the Environment and Public Works Committee which will be working on a highway reauthorization bill this year. He was skeptical about proposals to use repatriated profits of U.S. corporations now held overseas to pay for infrastructure.

He also said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D- Md., the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, is a co-sponsor of his bill.

Meanwhile, the limited-government, free-enterprise think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, issued its 2015 legislative agenda.

Full story

January 27, 2015

CBO Reminder To Congress: Infrastructure Funding 101

House Speaker John A. Boehner has repeatedly rebuffed the idea of a fuels tax increase (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Speaker John A. Boehner has repeatedly rebuffed the idea of a fuels tax increase (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

In its annual budget and economic forecast Monday the Congressional Budget Office reminded members of Congress of some of the basics that set the bounds of the infrastructure debate:

  • While federal spending on highways and mass transit has been running at about $53 billion a year in recent years, “annual receipts from highway taxes, which are largely dedicated to the Highway Trust Fund, are projected to stay at $38 billion or $39 billion each year between 2015 and 2025….” Thus the shortfall is about $14 billion a year.
  • CBO predicts that over the long term gasoline consumption will decline, as vehicles’ fuel economy improves. This will “more than offset increases in the number of miles that people drive stemming from both population increases and real income gains per person.”
  • But just for this year, the drop in gasoline prices (down nearly 40 percent from this same point last year) will cause drivers to drive more miles, so CBO projects that “gasoline use and tax revenues will be roughly in line with last year’s figures….”
  • CBO predicts that oil prices will rise again later this year – a forecast which some private-sector economists and investors don’t agree with at all.

Full story

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 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.

January 22, 2015

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.

Full story

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.”

Full story

January 20, 2015

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?

Full story

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.

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

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:

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

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