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Infrastructure in the News 8.1.16

NATIONAL NEWS

The New York Times: Delphi Wants to Deploy Self-Driving Cars in 2022

http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2016/08/01/business/ap-us-delphi-autonomous-cars.html?_r=0

Auto electronics supplier Delphi Corp. will start testing self-driving vehicles in Singapore next year with a goal of putting them into public use in 2022.

The New York Times: Pacific Northwest Weighs Response to Risks Posed by Oil Trains

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/01/us/pacific-northwest-weighs-response-to-risks-posed-by-oil-trains.html

The Chinook salmon that Randy Settler and other Yakama tribal fishermen are pulling from the Columbia River are large and plentiful this summer, part of one of the biggest spawning runs since the 1960s. It is a sign, they say, of the river’s revitalization, through pollution regulations and ambitious fish hatchery programs.

The New York Times: Tesla Faults Brakes, but Not Autopilot, in Fatal Crash

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/30/business/tesla-faults-teslas-brakes-but-not-autopilot-in-fatal-crash.html

Tesla Motors has told Senate investigators that its crash-prevention system failed to work properly in a fatal crash, but said its Autopilot technology was not at fault, according to a Senate staff member.

Wall Street Journal: Tesla and SolarCity Agree to $2.6 Billion Deal

http://www.wsj.com/articles/tesla-and-solarcity-agree-to-2-6-billion-merger-deal-1470050724

Tesla Motors Inc. on Monday said it had reached a deal to buy SolarCity Corp., the next step in Elon Musk’s plan to combine his electric-car and solar-energy companies.

Wall Street Journal: Transportation Poses Ordeal for Rio Games

http://www.wsj.com/articles/transportation-poses-ordeal-for-rio-games-1469833816

With a half-million people set to descend on this traffic-choked megacity for the Olympics starting Friday, officials have yet to launch their main transit improvement: a $3 billion subway extension that cost two-thirds of Brazil’s transportation spending for the Games.

The Bond Buyer: Federal TIGER Grants Provide $500 Million for Local Projects

http://www.bondbuyer.com/news/washington-infrastructure/federal-tiger-grants-provide-500-million-for-local-projects-1109708-1.html

Road, rail, and transit projects in 32 states and two U.S. territories will receive $500 million from the eighth round of a stimulus-era competitive federal grant program.

RT&S: TIGER VIII: Rail projects receive more than $135 million

http://www.rtands.com/index.php/track-maintenance/on-track-maintenance/tiger-viii-rail-projects-receive-more-than-100-million.html?channel=

Twelve rail projects totaling $135.3 million have been awarded grants from the eighth round of the U.S. Department of Transportation's (USDOT) Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program.

News Works: Transit agency and Amazon team up to get workers to workplace

http://www.newsworks.org/index.php/local/item/95943-transit-agency-and-private-company-team-up-to-get-workers-to-workplace

Amazon's fulfillment centers outside Carlisle, Pennsylvania, are probably the closest thing the region still has to the factories that once employed so much of nearby Harrisburg's working class. These enormous warehouses employ over 1,500 people, including temps. The wages don't match those offered by the unionized industries of old, but they are almost twice the minimum wage.

STATE NEWS

The Washington Post: Northern Virginia lays miles of pavement to ease traffic, while Md. suburbs dither

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/northern-virginia-lays-miles-of-pavement-to-ease-traffic-while-md-suburbs-dither/2016/07/29/84cf2f7c-5036-11e6-aa14-e0c1087f7583_story.html

The gap between how Virginia and Maryland try to relieve some of the nation’s worst highway congestion keeps expanding.

The Washington Post: At last, SafeTrack disruptions are about to roll onto the Red Line

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/at-last-safetrack-disruptions-hit-the-red-line/2016/07/29/16bd993e-55da-11e6-bbf5-957ad17b4385_story.html

This will be the biggest one to date.

The Washington Post: Metro derailment: East Falls Church station to remain closed through Sunday

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/metro-train-carrying-75-passengers-derails-in-virginia/2016/07/29/c5578dba-5585-11e6-88eb-7dda4e2f2aec_story.html

The East Falls Church station will be closed through Sunday as Metro officials investigate a derailment on the tracks serving the Orange and Silver lines that delayed thousands of morning commuters and capped off an already troubled week for the system.

The Washington Post: State publicizing rules for driving 3-wheeled autocycles

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/state-publicizing-rules-for-driving-3-wheeled-autocycles/2016/08/01/98ce8aa8-57c1-11e6-8b48-0cb344221131_story.html

It’s more than a motorcycle and less than a car, and now the autocycle is the latest type of regulated vehicle in Maryland.

Albuquerque Journal:  ART can start

http://www.abqjournal.com/817404/as-closing-arguments-conclude-judge-says-hell-rule-on-art-today.html

A federal judge on Friday refused to order a halt to Albuquerque’s plan to build a bus-rapid-transit system down the middle of Central Avenue.

The Denver Post: RTD’s rail system is having its biggest year, but Denver is still a city with many transit gaps

http://www.denverpost.com/2016/07/31/rtd-rail-system-denver-gaps/

This is a banner year for the Denver metro transit system, with the opening of four rail lines serving places from Wheat Ridge to the airport and the Flatiron Flyer rapid bus route to Boulder.

The Kansas City Star: Kansas City streetcar tops 550,000 rides

http://www.kansascity.com/news/local/kc-streetcar/article92650607.html

Kansas City’s downtown streetcar has recorded more than 550,000 rides since it launched nearly three months ago.

The Salt Lake Tribune: Groups opposing Provo-Orem transit project appeal to Utah Supreme Court

http://www.sltrib.com/home/4174030-155/groups-opposing-provo-orem-transit-project-appeal

Groups contending that Provo and Orem illegally rejected voter referendums that sought to block a controversial transit project appealed Friday directly to the Utah Supreme Court, and asked for an expedited review.

Milwaukee Business Journal: ​Milwaukee County’s BRT route plans move forward after final approval

http://www.bizjournals.com/milwaukee/news/2016/07/29/milwaukee-county-s-brt-route-plans-move-forward.html

The proposed east-west bus rapid transit plans will move forward with an application for federal funding after Thursday’s final sign-off from the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors.

Orlando Sentinel: Orlando hopes to stay ahead of transit issues with new department

http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/orange/os-orlando-new-transportation-department-20160731-story.html

From SunRail to I-4 Ultimate, Orlando is the epicenter for major projects that are changing the way Central Florida residents will get around town in the years to come.

Politico Morning Transportation

By Lauren Gardner and Brianna Gurciullo | 08/01/2016 05:41 AM EDT

METRO'S TERRIBLE, AWFUL, NO GOOD, VERY BAD WEEK: A derailment early Friday morning on Metro's Orange and Silver lines wreaked havoc on customers and the beleaguered transit agency this weekend just days after damning details emerged about why a train operator ran a red signal July 5.

NTSB and FTA investigators visited the scene, and WMATA kept the East Falls Church station shuttered through Sunday so Metro officials could continue their inquiry into the incident unimpeded by rail traffic. Normal service was expected to resume this morning.

What now? Any number of factors could have contributed to, or outright caused, the derailment. The area experienced an intense heat wave and some rain last week. Still, the incident raises questions of whether Metro is making much progress on safety under the federal government's watch and amid major maintenance work. The sixth installment of the SafeTrack effort begins today on the Red Line, with continuous single-tracking over seven days on the eastern edge of the line.

HOT AIR BALLOON CRASH KILLS 16: A hot air balloon in Texas caught fire and crashed into a pasture Saturday, reportedly killing all 16 people on board. The FAA went to the site and the NTSB will lead an investigation into the incident, Lynn Lunsford of the FAA said. The crash - considered the deadliest involving a hot air balloon in U.S. history - happened about 7:40 a.m. near Lockhart, Texas. Part of the balloon collided with at least one electrical transmission line.

Past recommendations: The accident comes two years after the NTSB wrote a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta saying the independent agency was concerned about commercial balloon tours having a "lack of oversight relative to similar airplane and helicopter air tour operations." The NTSB said that "the potential for a high number of fatalities in a single air tour balloon accident is of particular concern if air tour balloon operators continue to conduct operations under less stringent regulations and oversight."

The agency suggested that the FAA require balloon operators to get letters of authorization so "they would be subject to surveillance activities." Huerta responded to the NTSB saying: "Since the amount of ballooning is so low, the FAA believes the risk posed to all pilots and participants is also low given that ballooners understand the risks and general hazards associated with this activity."

IT'S MONDAY: Thanks for tuning in to POLITICO's Morning Transportation, your daily tipsheet on all things trains, planes, automobiles and ports. There are fewer than 100 days until the presidential election.

Reach out: bgurciullo@politico.com or @brigurciullo, lgardner@politico.com or @Gardner_LM, jscholtes@politico.com or @JAScholtes and tsnyder@politico.com or @TSnyderDC.

"Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz? My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends. Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends. So Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?"

BANKS PAUSE SENATE GOP DONATIONS OVER HIGHWAY BILL BEEF: Big banks and their trade groups are keeping the Senate Republicans' campaign organization at arm's length recently because of how they think GOP lieutenants have treated bankers since regaining the majority, POLITICO'S Zachary Warmbrodt reports in the latest edition of Pro Financial Services Influence. Transpo Pros may recall that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell riled banks last year when he diverted dividends the Federal Reserve pays to banks to help pay for transportation programs.

From his report: "Political action committees operated by the American Bankers Association, the Consumer Bankers Association, JPMorgan Chase, SunTrust and other lenders have not given money to the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2016, according to the latest data from the Federal Election Commission."

PASSENGER RAIL SAFETY RULE CROSSES FINISH LINE: FRA finalized a rule Friday - nearly four years overdue - requiring passenger railroads to identify and mitigate safety risks across their systems. The agency bifurcated the regulation required by Congress into one covering Amtrak and commuter rail services and another TBD rule governing freight railroads (the agency currently projects releasing it in December).

Fatigue management is MIA: Also sliced off the larger rule is a requirement for railroads to incorporate fatigue management plans into their risk reduction strategies. While FRA's proposed rule contained a placeholder for the fatigue plan mandate, the final system safety reg does away with that entirely "to minimize confusion" around the separate regulatory effort that was born out of the agency's attempt to reach consensus on addressing workplace drowsiness.

But regulators, industry and labor failed to agree on the issue in 2013. An FRA official told POLITICO last year a fatigue management rule could be proposed in 2016, but a spokesman couldn't provide an update Friday on a projected timeline.

Discovery shield: One thing that was preserved from the proposal was discovery protections for railroads that get sued over accidents. Any risk analysis data developed "solely" to comply with the rule can't be entered into evidence, though information collected for other purposes - even if it's also used to help develop the safety plans - is fair game.

Some lawyers have complained that the law firm FRA contracted with to study information protection, Baker Botts LLP, is biased because it regularly represents railroads. "When the FRA considers whether to include the same loophole in its forthcoming rule on freight railroads, it should keep transparency, safety, and the public's interest firmly in mind," Linda Lipsen, CEO of the trial attorneys group American Association for Justice, said in a statement.

TIGER GRANTS ARE HERE: DOT announced Friday the 40 projects that will benefit from the eighth round of TIGER grants totaling $500 million. Our Tanya Snyder has the breakdown: "$193 million for roads (plus $97 million for bike and pedestrian improvements), $93 million for transit, $54 million for maritime projects, and $47 million for passenger and freight rail combined."

Secretary Anthony Foxx said the grants - awarded to projects in 32 states and two territories - will support $1.74 billion in state, local and private investments. DOT was inundated with almost 600 applications for this round. In seven years, $5.1 billion in TIGER grants have gone to 421 projects in all the states and some territories.

TESLA BRIEFS HILL STAFF ON CRASH THEORIES: Reps from Tesla decamped to Capitol Hill last week to debrief Senate Commerce staffers on two working theories of why a Model S driving with the "Autopilot" function engaged crashed into a tractor trailer. Our Lauren Gardner reports:

"The company is still trying to understand the 'system failures' that precipitated the accident, a committee source familiar with the briefing said. So far, two scenarios have emerged: One, that the radar and camera technologies for the automatic emergency braking system in the Model S could have failed to detect the trailer. And two, the automaker is considering whether the radar in the automatic braking system may have spotted the trailer but ignored it as part of its programming to 'tune out' infrastructure like overpasses and signs to avoid unnecessary braking."

CASE AGAINST MENENDEZ TO MOVE FORWARD: A federal appeals court refused Friday to toss out corruption charges against Sen. Robert Menendez. Among other allegations, Menendez is accused of trying to enforce a multimillion-dollar port security contract with the Dominican Republic on behalf of a doctor who gave him almost $1 million in campaign contributions and gifts, POLITICO's John Bresnahan and Josh Gerstein report. The New Jersey Democrat is the ranking member of the Senate Banking Committee's subcommittee on transportation.

THIS WEEK:

Tuesday - The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy holds a workshop on "drones and the future of aviation." And the RTCA holds a meeting of Special Committee 224, Airport Security Access Control Systems.

Wednesday - The FHWA holds a meeting via teleconference on grant applications for its Tribal Transportation Program Safety Funds. And the Women's Transportation Seminar-D.C., the Transportation Research Forum and Young Professionals in Transportation-D.C. hold a discussion called "Where is Transportation in the 2016 Elections?"

Thursday - The NHTSA holds a meeting of the Federal Interagency Committee on Emergency Medical Services, with a focus on addressing SAFETEA-LU requirements.

N.J. GAS TAX HIKE UNCERTAIN: Legislation to raise New Jersey's gas tax is moving along, but a veto from Gov. Chris Christie is likely. POLITICO New Jersey's Ryan Hutchins explains that the "future of the legislation, which calls for the creation of a 10-year, $20 billion spending plan, remains very much uncertain. Without the governor's support, sponsors will need to build veto-proof majorities in both houses and then, ultimately, override Christie. Democrats have never been able to get enough votes to do so on previous measures." New Jersey's infrastructure work has been on hold for a month and its Transportation Trust Fund is almost insolvent.

MT MAILBAG: House T&I ranking Dem Peter DeFazio fired off a letter to EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc last week blasting Norwegian Air International's bid to fly between the U.S. and Ireland given the company's labor practices. DeFazio has been an outspoken critic of NAI's use of outsourced crews working under contracts governed by Singapore law - and didn't take Bulc's bid for arbitration on the issue lightly.

"No U.S. airline would be permitted to operate as Norwegian intends," he wrote. "So it is no wonder that Norwegian proposes to establish a flag of convenience in Ireland to firmly plant the weed of this unsustainable business model in the fertile soil of our international aviation system."

Looky here: Remember that letter from Bulc to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx that Reuters scooped last week? Full text is available here: http://politico.pro/2afSEUc.

SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION: MT co-host Lauren is back on the WAMU 88.5 Metropocalypse podcast this week. She and Martin Di Caro interviewed GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia on Metro's safety woes and money troubles while riding the Silver Line from Reston to McLean. (No trains derailed during taping.) Download the episode, which drops today, here: http://wamu.org/metro.

THE AUTOBAHN (SPEED READ):

- California regulator says testing to begin on Volkswagen diesel fix. Reuters.

- Fiat Chrysler safety, recall oversight extended by NHTSA for another year. Automotive News.

- Transportation poses ordeal for Rio games. The Wall Street Journal.

- Pacific Northwest weighs response to risks posed by oil trains. The New York Times.

- Tech companies still trusted more on autonomous-car development. The Wall Street Journal.

- Tesla, SolarCity set to announce merger on Monday: sources. Reuters.

THE COUNTDOWN: DOT appropriations run out in 59 days. The FAA reauthorization expires in 424 days. The 2016 presidential election is in 98 days. Highway and transit policy is up for renewal in 1,524 days.

THE DAY AHEAD:

Nothing on our radar for today.

Did we miss an event? Let MT know at transpocalendar@politicopro.com.

To view online:
https://www.politicopro.com/tipsheets/morning-transportation/2016/08/metros-terrible-awful-no-good-very-bad-week-018527

Stories from POLITICO Pro

WMATA operator who ran red signal wanted a break Back

By Tanya Snyder | 07/28/2016 11:34 AM EDT

A Metrorail operator who blew through a red signal July 5 and almost struck an oncoming train was distracted because he was "extremely concerned about getting a break," a WMATA official said today.

The driver had one radio stashed in his personal bag and another turned off, and was only alerted to the overrun when two workers on the track - who he almost struck - yelled at him to stop. The train came within 2,000 feet of hitting another train.

The train's operator was working within hours of service rules, but was anxious to be relieved and annoyed that he wouldn't get to take his break in the place he preferred, which has more restaurant options. WMATA's Chief Safety Officer Patrick Lavin called the operator's attitude and actions "childish."

A drug test came back negative, there were no medical problems contributing to the incident, and the operator was properly trained. But Lavin pointed to the need for better vetting.

The operator in the July 5 incident had two red light violations as a bus driver and two more violations while operating trains. Lavin said they're looking over the vetting process and want to make sure rule-breaking operators can't so easily get moved around from one part of Metro to another.

Lavin did not address an incident this week that also seems to have been a red signal violation, but noted that there have been 10 such violations this year and more than 60 since 2012.

Back

NTSB heads to WMATA derailment scene Back

By Lauren Gardner | 07/29/2016 02:17 PM EDT

NTSB has sent two investigators to the scene of a Metrorail derailment in Virginia today to assess whether the independent agency should investigate the incident further.

A train derailed early this morning near the East Falls Church station, causing WMATA to shutter that station and halt service on portions of the Orange and Silver lines. The Washington Post reports that the train was carrying 75 passengers, and no one was seriously injured.

FTA investigators were also dispatched to the site of the derailment earlier today, spokesman Steve Kulm said.

Back

FRA finalizes passenger railroad safety plan rule Back

By Lauren Gardner | 07/29/2016 10:22 AM EDT

FRA this morning issued its final rule requiring passenger railroads to identify and mitigate safety hazards, with the intent to prevent injuries or deaths.

The rule was required under a 2008 rail safety law and is several years overdue. FRA is still working on a separate, similar rule for freight railroads.

Among other things, the new rule requires passenger railroads to implement "a defined and measurable safety culture," as well as coming up with a plan to mitigate safety risks.

The rule will go into effect in two months.

Back

FRA risk plan rule excludes fatigue as separate reg stews Back

By Lauren Gardner | 07/29/2016 12:58 PM EDT

FRA's final system safety rule doesn't include "placeholder" language from the proposed rule requiring passenger railroads to analyze risks linked to employee fatigue.

The agency continues work on a separate fatigue regulation with an unclear timeline. The change, FRA said in the rule, is intended "to minimize confusion."

A 2008 rail safety law mandates that railroad system safety plans include mitigation to address drowsiness on the job, including medical conditions like sleep apnea that affect alertness. Safety advocates like the NTSB have pushed FRA and DOT's other modal agencies to do more to address fatigue - like comprehensive medical screening - for years.

A regulatory working group formed in 2011 to advise FRA on the fatigue management rule submitted for recommendations in 2013. An FRA spokesman couldn't immediately comment on a timeline for that regulation.

Today's final rule generally maintains from the proposed rule information protections for railroads involved in litigation over accidents. Under the rule, any documents generated "solely" for developing or implementing system safety plans can't be entered into evidence - the goal being that railroads would be more willing to exhaustively study their inherent risks if they know that data won't be used against them in court.

"This means that information compiled or collected for any other purpose is not protected, even if the railroad also uses that information for its" plan, FRA said in the rule.

Trial attorneys argued the provision may shield documents needed to prove a railroad was - or should have been - aware of a hazard.

Back

Eighth round of TIGER grants provides $500 million to 40 projects Back

By Tanya Snyder | 07/29/2016 01:57 PM EDT

DOT today announced the eighth round of TIGER grants - forty projects in 32 states and two U.S. territories worth a total of $500 million.

That money, according to Anthony Foxx, is leveraged to support $1.74 billion in private, state and local investments.

Among the larger awards, Pittsburgh is getting a $19 million highway cap over a below-grade portion of I-579 downtown. The Chicago Transit Authority will get $25 million to improve stations and enhance the surrounding streetscape with crosswalks, better lighting and bike racks.

It breaks down like this: $193 million for roads (plus $97 million for bike and pedestrian improvements), $93 million for transit, $54 million for maritime projects, and $47 million for passenger and freight rail combined.

DOT received nearly 600 applications for this year's round.

Many of this year's awardees, including Pittsburgh, were returning applicants, having been turned away in previous rounds.

Over the past seven years, the TIGER grant program has awarded a total of $5.1 billion to 421 projects in all 50 states and several territories. As popular as it is, Foxx noted that the program is perennially under threat from some sectors of the GOP. Some Republican members have accused the awards of being politically biased.

Back

Court rejects Sen. Robert Menendez's attempt to get corruption case thrown out Back

By John Bresnahan and Josh Gerstein | 07/29/2016 09:47 AM EDT

In a long-awaited decision, Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.) failed in a bid to have the bribery and corruption case against him thrown out. A federal appeals court in Philadelphia has let stand the charges against him, rejecting his claims that his constitutional protections as a senator were violated.

The ruling is a serious blow to Menendez, who was hoping to have all or most of the case against him thrown out. Menendez will now ask for the full Third Circuit to consider his case, with an eye toward a possible attempt to take the issue to the Supreme Court.

"Today's ruling by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals is just another step in the legal process that, at the end of the day, will show that Sen. Menendez has always acted in accordance with the law," said Abbe Lowell, Menendez's attorney, in a statement.

"We intend to appeal to the full Third Circuit Court of Appeals for review and, if necessary, raise these issues before the U.S. Supreme Court, which is supposed to resolve constitutional questions between the executive and legislative branches," Lowell continued. "In addition, the Supreme Court's recent decision in the Governor McDonnell case also raises equally important issues with this case that were not examined here and also will now have to be addressed. Once all the facts are heard, the senator remains confident that he will be vindicated."

Menendez was indicted in April 2015 for allegedly accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in improper gifts and campaign contributions as bribes in exchange for using his office to help Dr. Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist and longtime friend and financial backer. Melgen has also been indicted and is awaiting trial.

According to the indictment, Menendez received nearly $1 million worth of gifts and campaign contributions from Melgen. In turn, Menendez allegedly intervened on Melgen's behalf in a multimillion-dollar billing dispute with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and attempted to enforce a $500 million port security contract with the Dominican Republic, as well as obtaining visa applications for several of Melgen's girlfriends.

While the ruling leaves Menendez facing the grim prospect of a trial on 12 felony charges, it does leave open the possibility for the New Jersey Democrat to try to defend himself at trial using many of the same arguments presented to the appeals court. The judges said Menendez is free to argue that the actions the Justice Department alleges he took on behalf of Melgen were in fact genuine expressions of legislative interest in the policies of the executive branch, rather than mere favors for a generous donor and loyal political supporter.

Menendez argued that under the Speech or Debate clause - a constitutional privilege that shields lawmakers and staff from legal action over legitimate legislative activities - he could not be charged with improperly aiding Melgen. He asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit to overrule a lower court, which had let the Justice Department's case against him move forward.

But the appeals court flatly rejected Menendez's position.

"Senator Menendez's selective reading of the materials in the record does not persuade us that the District Court clearly erred in its findings of fact or that it incorrectly applied any law. That reading may prevail at trial, but at this stage we affirm in all respects," Judge Thomas Ambro wrote, in an opinion joined by Judges Anthony Scirica and Kent Jordan.

Menendez's attorneys also argued that the New Jersey Democrat had never mentioned Melgen's name during an August 2012 meeting with then Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Marilyn Tavenner, then the acting head of CMS.

Sebelius and Tavenner were summoned to Capitol Hill for a private meeting with Menendez in the office of Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), then the Senate majority leader. According to Sebelius, the topic of the meeting was a dispute between CMS and Melgen. CMS claimed Melgen had overbilled the government for millions of dollars, which Melgen fought.

The three-judge panel said it was clear that Menendez clearly was trying to aid Melgen during the Aug. 2012 meeting despite never referring directly to him.

"Evidence is plentiful that to most of those involved the focal point of the meetings with Executive Branch officials was Dr. Melgen," said today's opinion. "That Senator Menendez framed those meetings using the language of policy does not entitle them unvaryingly to Speech or Debate protection. Rather, for every mention of policy concerns there is substantial record support for the District Court's findings that those concerns were instead attempts to help Dr. Melgen. The evidence in favor of Senator Menendez will no doubt channel forcefully his position at trial, where the burden will be on the Government to convince jurors to find in its favor beyond a reasonable doubt. But at this stage the burden is on Senator Menendez. It was not clear error for the District Court to find that the Senator acted primarily for Dr. Melgen."

Some experts believe that the Supreme Court's decision last month overturning the corruption convictions of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell could bolster Menendez's defense, at least to a degree, because the high court held that certain favors for donors like arranging a meeting could not be the basis for a criminal charge.

However, the appeals court's opinion was limited to the Speech or Debate issue and did not even mention the McDonnell ruling. It will fall to the trial judge in the case to figure out how that decision may limit the government's case.

Ambro was appointed by President Bill Clinton, Scirica by President Ronald Reagan and Jordan by President George W. Bush.

Menendez has raised millions of dollars for his legal defense fund to cover is attorney fees in this case. His allies, especially among Republicans, suggest Menendez was indicted because he has been a vocal opponent of the Obama administration policies on Iran and Cuba, although Menendez himself has not made that claim.

Back

Lawmakers amend gas tax legislation, but still need GOP votes to take on Christie Back

By Ryan Hutchins | 07/29/2016 02:23 PM EDT

TRENTON - Lawmakers on Friday advanced new legislation to raise the state's gasoline tax and enact a sweeping series of tax cuts elsewhere, but they face steadfast opposition from Gov. Chris Christie and still appear to be short the Republican votes needed for a super majority.

The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee voted 8-4 to amend existing bills following a deal between Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto. Three Republicans and one Democrat voted against the measure, the enactment of which would end a month-long shutdown of infrastructure work in New Jersey and replenish the state's nearly-insolvent Transportation Trust Fund. One Republican abstained from the vote.

The future of the legislation, which calls for the creation of a 10-year, $20 billion spending plan, remains very much uncertain. Without the governor's support, sponsors will need to build veto-proof majorities in both houses and then, ultimately, override Christie. Democrats have never been able to get enough votes to do so on previous measures.

Sen. Kevin O'Toole, a senior Republican who praised Democrats for their work on the bill but abstained from the vote, said he thought the new legislation came closer than ever to getting everyone on the same page. "We're getting there," he said, while cautioning that he doesn't believe there is enough GOP support to override Christie.

"I don't see these overrides in the Assembly and the Senate," he said. "I'm going be really frank about that."

Sen. Paul Sarlo, the committee chairman and a primary sponsor of the legislation, said the Senate was close to having the 27 votes needed for a veto-proof majority. But he would not commit to posting the bill on Monday, when the upper house has an already-scheduled voting session. The Democrat said he has at least 25 votes, maybe 26, and is "pretty darn close."

"We're still working, convincing a few members on some of the amendments. But the goal would be to post it for a vote as soon as we have the 27 votes," he said after the meeting. "I'm confident we're going to get there. I know we have some work to do in the Assembly on some of the Assembly Republicans. They're still short some members. But today we took a step in the right direction."

The voting delay also threatens to derail a proposed constitutional amendment that would require quarterly payments into the pension system. Despite being the first to propose the idea, Sweeney has held off on a final vote to place it on the ballot, saying the tax cuts pursued by the governor are too expensive and can't occur at the same time. He'd need to call a vote before Aug. 10 to get the question before voters in November.

With its vote on Friday, the budget committee threw out a measure that paired the gas tax hike with a one-penny cut in the sales tax, which the governor has advocated for and the Assembly has already passed. And legislators officially killed a proposal to raise taxes on jet fuel, citing federal rules that restrict the use of such funds.

Instead, lawmakers retreated, for the most part, to a plan that had support in both houses until the governor became involved in late June. Once again, they want to phase out the estate tax, now a bit faster, in 3 1/2 years; raise the exemptions on retirement income as high $100,000 and create partial exemption up to $150,000; and raise the earned income tax credit from 30 percent of the federal level to 40 percent.

One component both houses had considered before, a tax deduction for charitable contributions, was removed. In its place, the legislation puts a new income tax deduction of up to $500 for all taxes paid on gasoline, available to those making less than $100,000 annually, and a $3,000 personal income tax exemption for veterans.

Combined, the tax cuts would cost $896 million in state revenue once fully phased in. The plan Christie has supported, saying it would provide "tax fairness" for the people of New Jersey, would cost about $1.7 billion a year once fully phased in. Both plans call for a 23-cent increase in the gas tax, to 37.5 cents per gallon, creating about $1.1 billion in annual revenue for the state Transportation Trust Fund.

Opponents of the new legislation raised questions on two fronts: Liberals said it included far too many tax cuts, while some conservative said the state shouldn't increase the gas tax at all.

"We believe it should be a clean bill. We believe our transportation system is broken and broken now. The TTF is bankrupt," Jeff Tittel of the Sierra Club told the committee. "We shouldn't bankrupt the rest of the state and undercut other important programs."

Sen. Jen Beck, a Monmouth County Republican who has led the charge against any gas tax increase, including the one Christie pushed, tried to move an amendment that would have stripped the legislation of any tax increase, leaving it with no way to pay for transportation work.

"Here we are on a Friday in July considering virtually the same proposal that was before us in June, and rejected by our residents with enormous rage," she said. "Citizens across this state called, wrote, emailed, questioned, what are we doing? We are one of the highest-taxed states in the nation."

But none of her Republican colleagues would second her motion, and the Democrats successfully moved to table it.

Sponsors said the new legislation offered the smartest way to tackle transportation funding, providing a stable revenue source after years of neglect, and giving taxpayers relief in return. They repeated their claim that a third of the gasoline purchased in New Jersey is paid for by out-of-state drivers, and said the tax cuts could keep some families from leaving the state in retirement.

"Let's be honest with our taxpayers," Sen. Steve Oroho, a Republican and primary sponsor, told his colleagues. "Let's get them some direct tax relief. Let's have the users of the roads actually pay for them."