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Infrastructure in the News 7.15.16


The Hill: High-speed rail remains elusive despite $10B investment

The prospect of a high-speed rail system remains elusive despite a $10 billion federal investment, lawmakers said Thursday.

Tri-State Transportation Campaign: The Awful Logic of Commuting via UberPOOL

Earlier this week, Uber hooked up with Gilt to offer a flat-rate commuter program that entitles participants to unlimited uberPOOL rides in Manhattan below 125th Street, between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays.

USA Today: DOT: Airlines' on-time rate 3rd-best ever, complaints plunge

Airlines improved their punctuality in May and reduced cancellations to the third-lowest rate recorded. Traveler complaints also dropped precipitously from a year earlier, the Transportation Department announced Thursday.


The Wall Street Journal: Funding Starts to Emerge for Hudson River Rail Tunnels

The federal government has taken steps to unlock up to $4 billion to help pay for two new Hudson River rail tunnels and a railroad bridge in New Jersey.

Los Angeles Times: San Diego's dream trolley line extension getting closer to reality

A new trolley line for San Diego is getting closer to reality.

The Hill: DC Metro lags on federal safety actions

The Metrorail system in Washington, D.C., still has to complete 600 actions required by a federal oversight board in order to fix safety defects, according to the latest data.

Hawaii News Now: Focus at first mayoral debate is on rail project beset with problems

The three main candidates for mayor squared off in their first mayoral debate Thursday, with Oahu's beleaguered rail project dominating much of the discussion.

The Boston Globe: Your Blue Line train may have something in common with a hybrid car

The MBTA has been quietly testing a new system that would recycle the energy lost when subway trains brake, as hybrid cars do, and leaders at the agency say they’re encouraged by the savings they’ve seen so far.

Politico Morning Transportation

By Jennifer Scholtes and Lauren Gardner | 07/15/2016 05:37 AM EDT

With help from Brianna Gurciullo

FRENCH ATTACKER WEAPONIZES TRUCK: France is still reeling from the massacre that killed dozens during Bastille Day celebrations in Nice on Thursday. Our POLITICO Europe colleagues have the latest on the truck driver who drove through a crowd of people for more than a mile.

At home: Here in the U.S., officials have directed extra precautions to be taken to protect potential transportation targets. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he has called on state law enforcement to "step up security at high-profile locations around the state, including our airports, bridges, tunnels and mass transit systems" and that the New York State Police and the Joint Task Force Empire Shield have deployed additional troops in the New York metropolitan region.

TSA PREPS FOR CONVENTION RUSH: The political conventions are upon us, with the RNC kicking off in Cleveland on Monday, so TSA is surging staffing at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and getting ready to do the same in Philadelphia later this month. TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger said this week that the agency is also sending 50 security agents to help the Secret Service with onsite security at the conventions themselves. And as we reported for Pros, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said officials "have to be concerned about things getting out of hand, very definitely."

IT'S FRIDAY: Good morning and thanks for tuning in to POLITICO's Morning Transportation, your daily tipsheet on all things trains, planes, automobiles and ports.

Reach out: or @Gardner_LM, or @JAScholtes and or @brigurciullo .

"Metro pass every month feel like the transit free/Income every month it's coming back at me." (h/t former MT guru Martine Powers)

COME ON RIDE THE TRAIN: MT caught up with FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg on the Hill after she testified Thursday at a House Oversight panel hearing to ask when the final system safety program rule (which will also contain a fatigue plan requirement) for passenger rail is coming. "I'd say weeks, not months," she said, not wanting to commit to a firmer timeline. OMB completed its review of the rule June 23.

Quality and quantity: On the oil train derailment in Oregon and the agency's refusal to issue a moratorium on crude traffic in the area, Feinberg said she's more focused on ensuring railroads like Union Pacific, the freight railroad involved in that incident, conduct "quality" inspections of their track in addition to keeping up with the number required. "I don't think the answer is necessarily, we can't ship hazardous material anywhere in the country," she said. "The issue is that we need railroads to be doing a better job. Union Pacific specifically needs to be doing a better job of maintaining its track. We'll have more to say about that in the coming weeks."

And on Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden's bill to ensure FRA has the power to halt oil train traffic? "I'm always happy to have more tools in my toolbox so that I can improve safety. ... I'll take any tools that the Congress wants to give me," Feinberg said. "Usually, they're not in the habit of giving us additional authorities. But what I didn't see in that bill ... was the ability to force railroads' hands to make their inspections better and stronger, and that's one of the things that I'm really focused on as it pertains to this specific incident."

Coming up today: FRA will hold a public hearing on its proposal to generally require two-person crews on trains. Expect groups like the Association of American Railroads to continue to blast the rule, which they say would stanch technological innovations that could make multi-person teams obsolete. Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota will voice her support for it, pointing to the 2013 oil train derailment in her home state where multiple crew members worked with local first responders to pull about 70 loaded tankers away from a fire that had broken out.

CUBAN FLIGHTS AND SECURITY FIGHTS: Commercial flights from Cuba to the U.S. are scheduled for takeoff in eight weeks, but it appears the Obama administration is still trying to make sure airport security is up to snuff at the 10 Cuban hubs cleared for U.S. service. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says he has asked TSA to give him assurances that those airports meet U.S. security standards, not just the bar ICAO has set.

No help: The secretary also let on that he tried to call in a favor for the very lawmakers who have been fighting the White House on this issue. Johnson said the administration attempted, and failed, to get the Cuban government to approve visas for House Homeland Security Committee lawmakers who wanted to check out the country's aviation security protocols.

Can't stop, won't stop: Rep. John Katko has been relentless in trying to call attention to his Cuban security concerns. Besides introducing a bill (H.R. 5728) earlier this week to try to block flights until TSA certifies that the U.S.-bound flights will be adequately protected, he's written a letter asking Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to delay Cuban service.

'BEHAVIOR DETECTION' ASSESSMENT: The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general is out with an update this week on how TSA is doing with its mission to justify the use of behavior detection officers that patrol airports on the lookout for travelers acting suspiciously. The IG says the agency still needs to demonstrate how effective the program is and whether its performance measures actually work.

Profiling allegations: Rep. Bennie Thompson, who has long criticized the program, says the new IG review serves as a reminder of why Congress should limit funding for the endeavor. "To this day, TSA has yet to provide the scientific validation of the effectiveness of the BDA program and, unfortunately, the program is known more for racial and ethnic profiling than detecting terrorist activity," Thompson said in a written statement this week. "As I have said for some time, the thousands of officers dedicated to this program could be reassigned to screening operations to address security checkpoint wait times."

METRO HAS 99 (x11.35) PROBLEMS: FTA dropped some stats Thursday on how many inspection reports regulators have written up on Metrorail since assuming safety oversight of the system in October, and the numbers are staggering. As we reported for Pros, Metro has 600 tasks on its plate to remedy scores of defects (1,124, to be exact) found in the system.

And that's not all s FTA found 109 defects during inspections of the first two track areas rehabbed under Metro's SafeTrack program (the audits happened during and after the maintenance, per the agency). Those problems s which an FTA spokesman said include "failure to comply with roadway worker protection rules, inconsistencies in following track maintenance standards and lack of procedures to ensure metal banding debris is not placed next to the electrified third rail" s warranted 88 remedial actions, 34 of which are still open.

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CONSUMER WATCHDOG CALLS OUT TESLA: Consumer Reports is urging Tesla to disable automatic steering and change the name of its "Autopilot" program. The magazine claims the name misleads drivers, who are supposed to keep their hands on the wheel even when their vehicle is in Autopilot mode. Consumer Reports argues that Tesla shouldn't even release new technology in "beta" form if it has safety implications.

"In the long run, advanced active safety technologies in vehicles could make our roads safer," Laura MacCleery, vice president of consumer policy and mobilization, said in the Consumer Reports post. "But today, we're deeply concerned that consumers are being sold a pile of promises about unproven technology."

CAP: SPEND BIG OR GO HOME: The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank with ties to Hillary Clinton, wants to boost infrastructure spending by $500 billion over the next decade. How would the government pay for the increase? By bumping up user fees, including a 15.25 cents per gallon gasoline tax hike, and tweaking the tax code.

CAP says it's time to "put rhetoric aside and act big." It has called for the creation of an infrastructure bank and boosts to transit New Starts and TIGER grants. The think tank also suggests giving rail a beachhead inside the Highway Trust Fund, which would change its name to the Transportation Trust Fund. But President Barack Obama has tried, and failed, to get Congress to adopt similar proposals in his budget requests.

HERITAGE: OR SPEND A LOT LESS: Meanwhile, The Heritage Foundation released its guide for the new administration's policy agenda, calling for the DOT to cut spending by almost $590 billion over a decade. The conservative think tank proposes transitioning the gas tax to 5 cents per gallon or less. It wants to limit the Highway Trust Fund's spending to just projects on the national highway system. It would get rid of the FTA, FRA, MARAD and FAA, and privatize the air traffic control system, some Amtrak routes and the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation. The think tank also suggests consolidating safety responsibilities into a new "Interstate Transportation Safety Administration."

"Limiting the federal government's role in transportation will enable states and localities to oversee their own transportation needs, while at the same time reducing the budgetary, regulatory, and tax burden of federal transportation activities," the Heritage report says.

ON THE (RAIL)ROAD: Amtrak has picked 23 writers for the second round of its residency program, including Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri and The Huffington Post's Krithika Varagur. About two writers each month for the next year will take roundtrip journeys on previously chosen trains. Amtrak expects the residents to cover all of the railroad service's 15 long-distance routes, promising "a travel experience with amazing scenery, an environment that fosters engaging connections, and the ability to explore and be inspired by the diversity of landscapes America has to offer." (h/t Daniel Lippman)


- Metro gets $50,000 legal bill after musician successfully sues to play near stations. The Washington Post.

- Regulators, Industry Debate How Many It Takes to Run a Train. The Wall Street Journal.

- Tesla asked to brief U.S. Senate panel on fatal Florida crash. Reuters.

- Most drivers admit angry, aggressive behavior or road rage. The Associated Press.

- Airbus and Boeing Leave Air Show With Work to Do. The Wall Street Journal.

- VW diesel owner survey shows support, confusion. Bloomberg BNA.

THE COUNTDOWN: DOT appropriations run out in 79 days. The FAA reauthorization expires in 1 day. The 2016 presidential election is in 116 days. Highway and transit policy is up for renewal in 1,541 days.


9 a.m. - The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee holds a hearing on the UASI grant program run by the Department of Homeland Security. 2154 Rayburn House Office Building.

10 a.m. - The FRA holds a meeting on establishing minimum requirements for the size of train crew staffs. National Housing Center of the National Association of Home Builders, 1201 15th St. NW.

10:30 a.m. - The Bureau of Transportation Statistics holds a meeting of the Port Performance Freight Statistics Working Group for an overview of the FAST Act, an update on the department's progress in implementing a port performance freight statistics program and a discussion about establishing an industry standard for collecting and reporting port data. Department of Transportation, 1200 New Jersey Ave. SE.

Did we miss an event? Let MT know at

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Security officials fret over domestic terrorism threat at conventions Back

By Jennifer Scholtes | 07/14/2016 11:45 AM EDT

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says national security officials are "very definitely" concerned about violent demonstrations breaking out at both parties' national conventions this month.

"I am concerned about the possibility of violence," Johnson said Thursday at a hearing on Capitol Hill. "I think we have to be concerned about things getting out of hand, very definitely."

House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) questioned Johnson and other top national security officials about what they are doing to protect against "fringe groups" that have "directed people to come to Cleveland and bring their weapons."

Johnson said he will personally inspect security measures in Cleveland on Friday and in Philadelphia on July 22.

The Homeland Security Department plans to deploy about 3,000 security agents to each event, including personnel from the Secret Service, TSA, Homeland Security Investigations, Customs and Border Protection, the National Protection and Programs Directorate and the Coast Guard.

On top of that DHS presence, Johnson said there will be "at least another thousand or so" federal security personnel at both locations, as well as National Guard troops, and state and local law enforcement.

"There will be a lot of security and a lot of preparation in place," the secretary told lawmakers.

Johnson noted that security officials will also have to contend with the fact that it is legal to openly carry firearms in Ohio.

"So that obviously is something that someone - under state law, and I suspect the Second Amendment - has a right to do. But it does present a challenging situation, very plainly," Johnson said.

But he said people who want to bring firearms to the convention will be "confined" - "roped off in an isolated area."

"There's a certain level of First-Amendment-protected activity that is guaranteed to demonstrators at national political conventions that will be confined. It will be roped off in an isolated area. But it is something that will have a lot of security devoted to," Johnson said.

FBI Director James Comey said the possibility of domestic terrorism at the conventions is "a threat we're watching very, very carefully."

"The definition of domestic terrorism is someone who engages in acts of violence directed against other people in order to coerce a civilian population or try and coerce a government. So any time there's a national spotlight on a political event in the United States, there's a risk that groups that aspire to do just that - to engage in acts of domestic terrorism - will be attracted," Comey said. "It's the reason we have hundreds of people focused on intelligence and deployed to Cleveland. I don't want to talk about particular groups here, but there is a concern, any time there is an event like this, that people from across the spectrum of radical groups will be attracted to it."

Separately, TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger told reporters Wednesday that his agency will be sending 50 TSA agents to assist the Secret Service with on-site security at the conventions.

TSA also plans to ramp up staffing at the two major aviation hubs feeding the conventions, Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and Philadelphia International Airport.


DHS chief: Security upgrades needed at Cuban airports cleared for flights to U.S. Back

By Jennifer Scholtes | 07/14/2016 03:44 PM EDT

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says he wants to hold Cuban airports to U.S. security standards - not just international rules - if they are going to operate flights directly to the United States.

The 10 airports cleared for takeoffs to the United States already have to meet minimum standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. body. But several House Republicans say the ICAO rules aren't enough, arguing that many Cuban hubs lack properly trained canine teams, thorough vetting for aviation workers and magnetometers to spot nonmetallic explosives.

"What I've told our people at TSA is I want an assurance that any last point of departure airport from Cuba satisfies our U.S. screening standards, not just international screening standards," Johnson told the House Homeland Security Committee on Thursday.

The secretary said he has asked TSA to initiate an agreement that would allow federal air marshals on flights to and from Cuba. But he also told lawmakers that he would have to decide later whether failure to arrive at such an agreement would be a "deal killer" for the flights the Obama administration has tried so hard to facilitate.

Johnson also wants a senior-level TSA official to personally trek to Cuba to size up security at airports that have been approved for departing flights, he said.

Several of the panel's lawmakers had planned their own trip to review security at airports on the island. But they say the Cuban government didn't grant them visas, even after Johnson himself pushed for approval upon the request of Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas).

"We tried and were unable to make that happen," Johnson said Thursday. "So I'm disappointed that the Cuban government did not grant that."

The secretary said the department is currently "very focused" on security at so-called last point of departure airports that handle direct flights to the U.S., noting heightened concern over flights from the Middle East.

Johnson referenced the Metrojet flight that an ISIL branch has taken credit for blowing up above the northern Sinai Peninsula in October. "Particularly in the Middle East region right now, I think we have some challenges there," he said. "I've asked our people to focus on airports in that region. We're not going to take our eye off the rest of the world, however. ... This is something I am personally focused on."

Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) introduced a bill (H.R. 5728) on Tuesday that would halt commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba until TSA certifies that security is sufficient at the Caribbean nation's airports. And the congressman joined with Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) in writing to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on Thursday, calling on the DOT head to delay opening service to and from Cuba.


Katko, Hudson push Foxx to delay flights to Cuba Back

By Brianna Gurciullo | 07/14/2016 12:18 PM EDT

House Republicans are asking Anthony Foxx to delay opening U.S. airline flights to Cuba, forming a new front in their fight to shutter air service to the island nation until security concerns are addressed.

Reps. John Katko of New York, the chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee on transportation security, and Richard Hudson of North Carolina signed the letter to Foxx. DOT announced a week ago that it has preliminarily chosen eight carriers to serve Havana from 10 cities in the United States.

"We have grave concerns about the risk to America's security if the protocols and infrastructure at these airports in Cuba cannot be adequately reviewed," they wrote. The lawmakers also wrote, "After all, Cuba has been a safe haven for terrorists and was just removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism about a year ago."

Earlier this week, Katko, Hudson, Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul of Texas and Henry Cuellar of Texas introduced a bill forbidding passenger flights to Cuba until the country's airports undergo a security study.

DOT must still finalize its preliminary decision on which airlines will be allowed to serve Havana; flights could begin as soon as this fall.


FTA: Metrorail has 600 open actions to remedy found since October Back

By Lauren Gardner | 07/14/2016 12:35 PM EDT

Metrorail must tackle 600 "remedial actions" to rectify defects FTA has identified since taking over safety oversight of the troubled system in October, according to data released today.

The agency also disclosed that, after several instances where WMATA denied federal inspectors access to certain areas, the transit agency has largely reversed course thanks to the intervention of General Manager Paul Wiedefeld.

FTA has produced 214 inspection reports and located 1,124 defects in that time, the agency said in summary statistics posted on its website. The agency required Metro to take 749 remedial actions to address issues identified on the tracks, in the Rail Operations Control Center and with vehicle maintenance, among other areas.

FTA noted that some of the 600 outstanding remedial actions may have already been completed, but Metro could either still be submitting documentation to the agency or is waiting for regulators to sign off on the work.

Of those open remedial actions, 34 were identified during the first two "surges" of Metro's SafeTrack maintenance program.

The federal regulator also noted that, as of July 11, there were 15 occasions - out of more than 200 inspections - when WMATA prevented FTA safety inspectors from accessing either the operations control center or a train's operating cab.

"FTA brought this issue to the attention of the WMATA General Manager and such incidents have been significantly reduced," the agency said.


Consumer Reports urges Tesla to disable part of Autopilot feature Back

By Lauren Gardner | 07/14/2016 11:57 AM EDT

Tesla has all but refused to disable the automatic steering component of its Autopilot feature in vehicles, after being pressed by a leading consumer watchdog publication earlier today.

Consumer Reports also called on the company to stop calling its program "Autopilot," saying the name is misleading since drivers are still expected to maintain control of their cars.

The magazine also urged Tesla to stop releasing new technology with safety implications in "beta" form. It noted that it recently tested a Model X car in Autopilot mode on a long, straight road and found the program took more than three minutes to detect that the driver's hands had been taken off the wheel.

"By marketing their feature as 'Autopilot,' Tesla gives consumers a false sense of security," Laura MacCleery, vice president of consumer policy and mobilization for Consumer Reports, said in the outlet's post . "In the long run, advanced active safety technologies in vehicles could make our roads safer. But today, we're deeply concerned that consumers are being sold a pile of promises about unproven technology. 'Autopilot' can't actually drive the car, yet it allows consumers to have their hands off the steering wheel for minutes at a time."

The magazine initially gave one of Tesla's cars a perfect rating, but later walked back its ringing endorsement of the Model S by not recommending it in a report on the most and least reliable cars.


CAP floats big-spending infrastructure plan, gas tax increase Back

By Kathryn A. Wolfe | 07/14/2016 12:31 PM EDT

The Center for American Progress is calling for a $500 billion increase in federal infrastructure spending over the next decade, paid for by increases in user fees - including a 15.25-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax hike - and changes to the tax code.

It's time to "put rhetoric aside and act big," said CAP, a liberal think tank with ties to Democratic standard-bearers such as Hillary Clinton.

The group also called for the creation of an infrastructure bank, and advocated continued scrubbing of federal programs to "increase accountability and ensure that each dollar produces the greatest possible social, environmental, and economic return on investment."

The document proposes to shore up the Highway Trust Fund with the gas-tax increase, which it estimates would generate about $25.9 billion annually. However, that's still about $15 billion short of covering the projected shortfall through fiscal 2025, a gap CAP suggests should be patched with another general fund transfer.

Beyond the trust fund, CAP wants to see transit New Starts boosted from $2.3 billion annually to $4 billion, and TIGER grants bumped from $500 million annually to $1 billion.

It also calls for rail to receive a beachhead inside the Highway Trust Fund, which would be renamed the Transportation Trust Fund, an idea that meshes with proposals that President Barack Obama has unsuccessfully urged Congress to adopt in his budget requests. CAP suggests that the new rail account be capitalized with $50 billion in revenues from tax reform, along with an annual boost of $5 billion for passenger rail and Amtrak