REUTERS: U.S. Motorist Travel Increases 2 Percent Year-Over-Year in July: DOT
Motorists logged 287.5 billion miles on U.S. roads in July, the most ever for the month and a 2 percent increase over last year, according to data released Friday by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Associated Press: Truckers warn speed caps will cause crashes, jam highways
Truckers are warning that a government plan to electronically limit the speed of tractor-trailers will lead to highway traffic jams and possibly an increase in deadly run-ins with cars.
Washington Post: Fares are down, satisfaction is up, and the airline industry is not out to torment us
Stop harumphing, travelers. The airline industry is much healthier today than a decade ago. Fares are down, on-time arrivals are up and JetBlue has free WiFi.
Associated Press: Economists say Trump's economic plan is an impossible blend
Donald Trump has attached a price tag to an economic vision promising what many economists say is impossible: lower taxes, a dramatic expansion in some federal programs and a slimmer government running a smaller deficit.
Associated Press: Senate approves bill for water projects; millions for Flint
The Senate approved a $10 billion water projects bill Thursday that includes emergency funding for Flint, Michigan — nearly a year after officials declared a public health emergency because of lead-contaminated water.
Associated Press: 'Miracle on the Hudson' Safety Advice Not Carried Out
In the seven years since an airline captain saved 155 lives by ditching his crippled airliner in the Hudson River, there's been enough time to write a book and make a movie, but apparently not enough to carry out most of the safety recommendations stemming from the accident.
Charlotte Business Journal (written by former Gov. Jim Martin): Why transportation infrastructure is important to the state – and Charlotte
As a former Governor of North Carolina, I have seen first-hand how critical transportation infrastructure is to the economy. I made a promise to the people of North Carolina — that before my term as governor was over, Interstate 40 would be completed.
Business Insider: New York City may ban cars from a major thoroughfare for over a year
To the dismay of many New Yorkers, the L train will shut down for repairs starting in 2019.
Brooklyn Eagle (New York): DOT’s Trottenberg calls for NYC to ‘think big’ about transportation
NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said the city has to “think bigger” about mass transit.
The Virginian-Pilot: Transportation committees dissect funding, sequencing of water crossing projects
While the public shares its opinions on the best water-crossing projects for the region, financial wonks are working behind the scenes to identify the most effective way to pay for it.
The Chippewa Herald (Wisconsin): Governor unveils state transportation plan at Lake Wissota
Using the construction on the Highway X bridge over Paint Creek/Lake Wissota as a backdrop, Gov. Scott Walker made Chippewa County one of the locations where he touted his state transportation budget proposal Thursday.
La Crosse Tribune (Wisconsin): Walker transportation budget gets cool reception
While Gov. Scott Walker traveled the state Thursday touting the increase in state funding for local transportation in his proposed budget, county officials and state lawmakers, including some from his own party, took a dim view of the plan he unveiled this week.
Vermont Digger: LAWMAKERS APPROVE $2.8 MILLION TRIM OF TRANSPORTATION BUDGET
A panel of lawmakers approved a proposal to reduce the current fiscal year transportation budget Thursday.
By Brianna Gurciullo | 09/16/2016 05:40 AM EDT
With help from Lauren Gardner, Jennifer Scholtes, Tanya Snyder and Annie Snider
HITCHIN' A RIDE: Lawmakers and their aides could try to use the continuing resolution expected to pass this month as a vehicle to fix a 2016 omnibus drafting error, which affects an enforcement pause to an hours-of-service rule for truckers. The tweak would ensure the 34-hour restart rule in effect before FMCSA proposed new regulations in 2011 would apply to commercial truckers, our Lauren Gardner and Jennifer Scholtes report for Pros.
Sooner or later: Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee in charge of DOT funding, hinted that the restart fix could be a candidate for a CR policy rider. But Chris Spear, the new president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, said he's not expecting any movement until the lame-duck session.
To cap or not to cap: Meanwhile, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the chairwoman of the upper chamber's DOT appropriations panel, has pushed for prohibiting commercial drivers who use the 34-hour restart from driving if they work over 73 hours in a week. Both trucking and safety groups have criticized the idea, but the compromise could be necessary to get Democrats on board. And all that controversy makes an omnibus rider more likely.
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POWER TO THE PEOPLE: Voters across the country will weigh in this year on transportation proposals that together would raise a half-trillion dollars - representing a wave of measures to fund transportation at the state and local level in the absence of robust federal funding for transportation, our Tanya Snyder reports for Pros. About 50 transit initiatives will appear on ballots nationwide this Election Day, and another 27 have already been voted on so far this year. "With the federal government not coming up with additional resources - and trending downward long-term - cities, states, and metropolitan areas are not waiting for the cavalry to come," said Robert Puentes, the director of the Eno Center for Transportation. "They're going directly to the voters."
Lay of the land: States and local governments aren't completely striking out on their own: Behind many measures is a TIGER grant or New Starts funding. Transit projects make up about $200 billion of the total haul that states and cities are hoping to raise. The single largest project under voter consideration is Los Angeles County's Measure M, a $120 billion plan for the next 40 years. While that's by far the most expensive project, it speaks to a common theme in other state measures: These aren't just maintenance projects. Some of them are dramatic plans.
SHORT SHRIFT FOR SURFACE TRANSPORTATION SECURITY? It's the Transportation Security Administration, not the Aviation Security Administration. And lawmakers and federal watchdogs want TSA officials to remember that when deciding how to split up its resources. Right now, they say, the agency isn't actually providing security based on each transportation mode's risk of terrorist attack. So Senate Commerce Committee leaders are working on a bill to address "the lack of TSA analysis for highway, rail, transit, and pipeline security" and "improve how TSA assesses and responds to security risks."
A risk-based proposal: As our Jennifer Scholtes reported for Pros, Chairman John Thune and ranking member Bill Nelson announced their plan Thursday to introduce that measure, following an inspector general report that criticizes TSA for lacking "a formal process to incorporate risk in its budget formulation decisions" and recommending "a crosscutting risk-based security strategy" to "ensure all transportation modes consistently implement risk-based security and help decision makers align resources effectively."
Cyber qualms: Two other senators are also on TSA's case about budget decisions this week. As Pro Cybersecurity's Eric Geller reported , Sens. Cory Booker and Deb Fischer just sent a letter asking TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger how the agency prevents hackers from compromising highways, railways and waterways. The senators say they're concerned that the agency devotes only 3 percent of its budget and 2 percent of its personnel to protecting surface transportation systems. The letter points out "three trends that should concern the TSA from a cybersecurity perspective: Shipping companies rely on computerized cargo sorting and processing, trains are increasingly using automated positive train control technology and driverless cars are starting to become a commercial and personal reality."
WRDA OUT: The Senate voted, 95-3, to pass its Water Resources Development Act on Thursday. The passage of the $10.6 billion bill "underscores the extent to which Congress is still willing to come together behind big infrastructure bills whose benefits are distributed throughout the country, and WRDA's success represents a capstone for Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and ranking member Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)," Pro Energy's Annie Snider reported.
The ball is in the House's court: House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster has said he hopes to get his committee's version of the legislation to the floor next week. In the House, "any effort to pass aid for Flint will likely move separately from the WRDA bill, at least initially," Annie reports. "In the lower chamber, drinking water issues belong not to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, but to the Energy and Commerce Committee, which happens to be helmed by Michigan Republican Fred Upton." Shuster told our friends at Pro Energy that he, Inhofe and Boxer could iron out the differences between the bills. "We share the same goal of sending a WRDA bill to the president before the end of this Congress," Shuster said.
ONE STEP CLOSER TO METRO BENNIES: The House Oversight Committee approved a bill (H.R. 5625) on Thursday clarifying that agencies should reimburse federal employees for official travel if they use Uber, Lyft or a bicycle-sharing system. While the GSA informed federal agencies earlier this year that they were allowed to reimburse their employees for using such modes of transportation, this legislation would make it a requirement, our Tanya Snyder reported for Pros. Senators also introduced a companion bill in their chamber Thursday.
And help surviving SafeTrack: The House panel also OK'd proposed legislation (H.R. 6008) to allow federal employees living in the D.C. area to use their transit benefits for ride-sharing services during SafeTrack. The committee speedily approved both bills by unanimous consent.
FRA TAKES AIM AT RISE IN POSITIVE DRUG TESTS: FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg spent her last Railroad Safety Advisory Committee meeting as an Obama administration agency chief focused on the uptick in positive drug and alcohol tests throughout the rail industry amid the nationwide opioid epidemic. "The FRA will have no patience whatsoever for post-accident positive test results," she said Thursday. "Railroads and railroad employees have the safety of the public in their hands." Agency statistics show the violation rate for its random drug tests skyrocketed more than 43 percent in 2015 from stable rates over the previous five years. And the post-accident positive result rate has jumped to 7.7 percent so far in 2016 - a record high.
Tackling the problem: The agency finalized a rule in May expanding testing to cover maintenance-of-way workers - who were previously only subject to toxicology exams if they had been killed on the job - and co-hosted two separate forums this month for industry and labor with NTSB on ways to identify substance abuse and promote rehabilitation. Feinberg also urged railroads and labor groups to maximize the effectiveness of their employee assistance programs. The Department of Health and Human Services is currently working on broadening the panel of drugs for which the federal government tests. FRA spokesman Matthew Lehner told our Lauren Gardner that DOT agencies adhere to HHS protocol.
AAR on board: Association of American Railroads spokesman Ed Greenberg said the freight industry goes beyond federal requirements for drug and alcohol testing, but "recognizes the seriousness of this situation and will work together with the FRA to make the rail system even safer, including supporting the expansion of testing to include items such as synthetic opioids."
FROM TRAIN CITY TO BRAIN CITY: The newest installment of POLITICO Magazine's "What Works" series explores how Roanoke, Va. - a city that counted just 15 people living downtown just a decade ago - reinvented itself as a cultural and medical hub that people are beginning to mention in the same breath as Asheville, its better known counterpart in North Carolina. Read more. Photo gallery.
AEM WANTS VOTERS THINKING ABOUT INFRASTRUCTURE: The Association of Equipment Manufacturers started running two online ads in swing states this week each imitating Donald Trump's and Hillary Clinton's statements on infrastructure spending. The ads will run in Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota until the election. AEM, which hasn't endorsed a presidential candidate, couldn't provide a cost estimate for the campaign. The group hopes "that voters are keeping manufacturing issues front-of-mind" as November nears, an AEM spokesman said. It also hopes "that by communicating to both Clinton and Trump supporters, it raises overall awareness of infrastructure as an issue," he said.
MOVIN' ON UP: The National Air Transportation Association's board of directors has named Martin Hiller the organization's president. The board also promoted William Deere to executive vice president of government and external affairs, and Timothy Obitts to executive vice president of operations and business.
THE AUTOBAHN (SPEED READ):
- Truckers warn speed caps will cause crashes, jam highways. The Associated Press.
- If Apple or Uber really build a car, here's where they might start. Bloomberg.
- Fiat Chrysler recalling 1.9 million vehicles for airbag defect. Reuters.
- Train crash in Pakistan kills at least 4. The New York Times.
- Man arrested for speeding in DeLorean at 88 mph. The Guardian.
- Michigan denies Tesla request to open dealership. The Wall Street Journal.
THE COUNTDOWN: DOT appropriations run out in 13 days. The FAA reauthorization expires in 378 days. The 2016 presidential election is in 52 days. Highway and transit policy is up for renewal in 1,478 days.
THE DAY AHEAD:
9 a.m. - The RTCA Drone Advisory Committee meets for the first time. Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW.
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Stories from POLITICO Pro
Some transportation riders may hitch a ride on the CR Back
By Lauren Gardner and Jennifer Scholtes | 09/16/2016 05:21 AM EDT
With legislation to fund the federal government likely one of the last big bills remaining this year, lawmakers and lobbyists are working to tuck in transportation policy riders, including provisions on trucker rest requirements and Amtrak funding.
For example, members and staff are eyeing a continuing resolution as a vehicle to fix a drafting error made in the 2016 omnibus related to an enforcement pause to an hours of service regulation.
That change would ensure the 34-hour restart rule in effect before the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration proposed new hours of service regulations in 2011 would apply to commercial truckers. It also would prevent the administration from enforcing two mandates finalized in 2013.
Those requirements, which call for two off-duty periods from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. and restricting the use of more than one restart per week, were first suspended in 2014 so FMCSA could study the effects of the original one-night rest period on safety and driver fatigue and compare them with the Obama administration's change.
The trucking industry has pushed for the change all year, arguing speed is of the essence, so DOT can release the study.
Congress added new conditions to the assessment in the fiscal 2016 omnibus that the Obama administration must show its new rule meets. But regulators aren't expected to be able to clear those new hurdles, and the spending bill didn't specify which rule they'd have to enforce if those requirements can't be fulfilled. Trucking lobbyists have said the industry would have to revert to pre-2003 regulations that are "antiquated" and encourage noncompliance.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Appropriations panel in charge of transportation, told POLITICO Wednesday there are "potentially one or two" provisions in his bill he'd recommend leadership include in the CR - and hinted that the restart fix could be a candidate.
"I'm not confirming or denying it," Diaz-Balart said.
On the other hand, Chris Spear, the new president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, says he's not expecting any movement on the hours of service issue until an omnibus passes in the lame duck.
It's not clear whether the fix also would include some sort of cap on the number of hours per week truckers can drive. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the upper chamber's transportation spending panel, shepherded language through the floor to preclude commercial drivers who use the 34-hour restart from driving if they work more than 73 hours over a seven-day period.
Both trucking and safety groups have panned the idea, but the compromise could be deemed necessary to assuage Democrats wary of the provision's impact on the hours of work truckers put in weekly. And while some consider the rider a must-move item, the controversy surrounding it could make hitching it to an omnibus more palatable.
Beyond trucking riders, the Obama administration has asked lawmakers to appropriate money for Amtrak based on a new accounting structure created by the FAST Act, a request known as an "anomaly," since it would deviate from how current spending works.
"I don't know. I really don't," Collins told POLITICO Thursday about the prospects for special language in a continuing resolution on the trucking issue or Amtrak funding. "A lot of the negotiations are being done at the leadership level."
Adding the Amtrak changes to the CR should be a relatively easy lift given the work the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak have already put into making the accounting changes. Additionally, members who worked closely on the FAST Act championed them with much fanfare.
Maintaining current policy for the passenger railroad would complicate things by funneling money to pots for operating and capital grants, rather than to buckets divided between the Northeast Corridor and the national network.
Diaz-Balart said he thinks making that change "will be a good one to put on there, absolutely."
"But I don't make those decisions," he added.
Lawmakers working on the CR must also decide whether to make a special exception for TSA staffing accounts or leave that funding at fiscal 2016 levels - a move the Obama administration says would result in the kind of long airport security lines the agency experienced earlier this year.
Administration officials are lobbying publicly and privately for extra cash for TSA staffing, noting that Congress allowed the agency to shift $62 million within its budget this summer to increase staffing at TSA checkpoints in an effort to drive down long wait times.
Besides the White House's formal request for Congress to kick in more for TSA under a continuing resolution, TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson have both been talking to lawmakers about the funding conundrum.
Several House lawmakers said they met with Neffenger in the Capitol this month, and the administrator told an audience this week that the budget discussions are going well.
"We're working with the administration and Congress, and they're saying all the right things - strong support from the administration right now and good signals from Congress," Neffenger said at an Airlines for America summit.
The TSA chief noted that the agency used the funding flexibility Congress allowed this summer to bring on about 1,400 new security screeners and to convert hundreds from part-time to full-time status.
"If we get a short-term CR, I need enough money to keep those people on board - otherwise, they go home on Oct. 1" the administrator said. But he added that "I don't think that's going to happen."
Johnson said earlier this month that constituents are not shy about telling their representatives in Congress about issues like long wait times at airport checkpoints.
"And I think, certainly, the appropriators I've talked to and I've dealt with fully understand that, on both sides of the aisle," the secretary said.
Tanya Snyder contributed to this report.
Transportation ballot initiatives ramp up, as states look outside D.C. for cash Back
By Tanya Snyder | 09/16/2016 05:04 AM EDT
Transportation ballot initiatives have nearly half a trillion dollars at stake nationwide this year - an unprecedented amount of demand fueled in large part by official Washington's inability to come to terms with how to increase funding for transportation initiatives.
Any way you measure it - number of initiatives, dollar amount, geographical reach - ballot measures are booming this year. That's a function of pent-up demand, thanks in part to Beltway dysfunction. According to Eno Center for Transportation's director, Robert Puentes, it's evidence of a fundamental shift in how transportation is conceived and funded.
"The way that we think about how we fund these projects is changing," said Puentes. "We've known this for a while. With the federal government not coming up with additional resources - and trending downward long-term - cities, states and metropolitan areas are not waiting for the cavalry to come. They're going directly to the voters."
According to Eno, some $500 billion in transportation initiatives are expected to be on the ballot this year, nationwide and across all modes. Twenty-seven of the ballot initiatives this year have already come before voters, with 21 winning. That's a 78 percent win rate, besting the 70 percent average for these measures. Election Day itself will likely see about another 50 measures - a record.
A huge chunk of the pie - some $200 billion - involves transit initiatives; by year's end, voters will have had the chance to weigh in on at least 76 transit proposals around the country, blowing away the previous record in the low 60s.
It's all part of a growing trend of states and municipalities taking appeals directly to voters, and slowly shifting away from reliance on the feds - at least, when it comes to getting a project off the ground.
While local sales taxes and property taxes will likely never replace all federal and state funding, Jason Jordan, executive director of the Center for Transportation Excellence, a pro-transit research group, said he doesn't expect the country will ever go back to a federally dominated system.
"We've inverted the historic approach, which typically was: feds in first, states in second and locals make up the difference," Jordan said. "We seem to be evolving to a model where in order to be competitive for those federal dollars - in order to to drive political will at the state level to move the projects - there has to be local skin in the game first."
Still, if you look behind many of these home-grown ballot measures you'll find a TIGER grant, New Starts money or state matching dollars. "The partnership is still there, and it's still important," Jordan said. "It's just that we've shifted the initial burden more to the local level to demonstrate that there's the fiscal and political will to move the projects."
Puentes of Eno said this shift may align better with public sentiment, too. It's long been accepted that it's easier to convince people to tax themselves when the revenue is for a project from which citizens can envision a direct benefit. When that personal link is removed - for instance, when it comes to raising the federal gas tax - support tends to drop off, and as a result politicians get squeamish.
"It may be true that they don't want to be taxed for the federal government to choose and to fund the transportation program, because it is a bit of a black box," Puentes said. "You're not voting on projects; you're voting on the federal government spending money wisely."
The single largest project being put before voters this November is Los Angeles County's massive Measure M, which makes up a huge chunk of the overall dollar amount on the ballot nationwide. The massive $120 billion plan would take 40 years to come to fruition. Just eight years after getting taxpayers to agree to Measure R, a half-cent sales tax hike over 30 years, the nation's most populous county is going back to voters this year with another half-cent sales tax proposal - to be increased to a full cent when Measure R sunsets - for a mix of light rail, highway widening, rapid bus and rail service to the airport, and bike paths. The funds will also support pothole repair, earthquake-retrofits for bridges, and efforts to keep transit fares affordable. The tax increases will be permanent.
Like Measure R, this plan faces a high hurdle - ballot measures to raise taxes in California must pass by a two-thirds super-majority. But LA Metro CEO Phillip A. Washington is optimistic. "We believe we will settle once and for all the transportation challenges with this measure," he told reporters Monday.
Meanwhile, Seattle's Sound Transit is asking voters for $54 billion over 25 years through a combination of sales, motor vehicle and property tax increases. Former FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff, now CEO of Sound Transit, underscored the need for this enormous injection of new funding. "Our HOV lanes in the Puget Sound region are some of the worst performing in the United States because they're already full," he said. And by 2040, the region expects an additional 800,000 residents - nearly the entire current populations of Seattle and Tacoma combined.
The Seattle-area plan would quintuple the reach of the rail system, taking one existing rail line and one that's under construction and turning them into a comprehensive, 116-mile regional rail network.
The biggest-ticket items may be in California and Washington, but ballot initiatives this year show a boom in geographic diversity, spreading from the West and Mountain West to places like the Midwest and the South, where ballot initiatives are less common. In places like Detroit, Atlanta and Indianapolis, which aren't as accustomed to taking decisions like these directly to the voters, local entities have first needed to establish their authority to do so.
New Jersey and Illinois are going to voters with statewide initiatives to put transportation-related revenues in a "lockbox," preventing them from being raided for other uses. Two Nevada counties have measures on the ballot to index the gas tax to inflation - a solution to the nationwide gas tax revenue deficit that's been broached on Capitol Hill but which never gained traction.
There are other notable shifts in this year's crop of ballot measures. While in previous years, small transit measures mostly promised maintenance of existing service and state of good repair, with a few small improvements like greater frequencies or weekend service, this year's transit measures are more transformational, promising what Jordan calls "root-and-branch" changes to a community's transportation options.
Jordan also noted a change in the political dynamic around transit initiatives.
"Particularly in LA and Seattle, the campaign has been focused less on 'should we or shouldn't we?' and more on 'how fast can we get it to our community?'" Jordan said. "In both places, the focus has been on accelerating plans; accelerating the development of new lines."
Senators seek to force TSA focus on surface transportation Back
By Jennifer Scholtes | 09/15/2016 05:41 PM EDT
Federal watchdogs and congressional leaders are pushing TSA to improve the way it divvies up its resources, hoping to focus more attention on security of modes other than aviation.
Senate Commerce Committee leaders announced Thursday that they plan to introduce a bill "addressing the lack of TSA analysis for highway, rail, transit, and pipeline security" and to "improve how TSA assesses and responds to security risks."
This follows an inspector general report criticizing TSA for essentially lacking a strategy for assessing how resources should be spent across transportation modes, and for failing to consistently consider the threat of terrorism in prioritizing programs.
"TSA's publicized 'intelligence driven, risk-based approach' was designed for the aviation mode and chiefly for air passenger screening," says the report by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general. "In addition, TSA lacks a formal process to incorporate risk in its budget formulation decisions. A crosscutting risk-based security strategy would help ensure all transportation modes consistently implement risk-based security and help decision makers align resources effectively."
In TSA's defense, Deputy Administrator Huban Gowadia told the inspector general that the agency does apply a so-called "risk-based security" strategy to surface transportation modes and outlined those policies for its workforce in 2014. She also said TSA works closely with FEMA to do risk analysis for the purposes of giving out money through transportation security grants.
TSA is working now to finalize a strategy document that "should be released soon" with "risk-based security principles woven throughout" for all transportation modes, Gowadia said.
Although the agency currently has security programs for surface transportation modes such as highways and rail, the IG says the agency's overarching risk management organizations "provide little oversight of these programs."
"While TSA's role at airports is most visible, and remains critically important, the agency has a responsibility to stay ahead of threats and secure all U.S. transportation systems," Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said in a statement this week.
When he announced his planned bill this week, Thune noted that terrorists have targeted rail and transit stations in attacks overseas in the past year, and that TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger testified earlier this year that his agency spends only 3 percent of its budget on protecting trains, subways, buses and ports.
Although Thune and Commerce ranking Democrat Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) were short on details of what their bill will entail, they said it will aim "to determine whether this allocation reflects an appropriate analysis of the relevant risks to potential transportation targets," and will "help ensure that complacency and a lack of analysis described by the inspector general does not create vulnerabilities for terrorists to exploit."
This latest report on TSA threat assessment follows a similar inspector general analysis in May explaining that the agency has little power to order security improvements on Amtrak because the agency hasn't followed congressional orders issued nearly a decade ago.
That previous IG's audit found that TSA has failed to categorize rail operators as high-risk targets for terrorist attacks, to set up a rail training program and to do background checks on front-line rail employees.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson insisted in August that TSA does dedicate appropriate resources to rail security, noting that his department deployed more canine teams to rail stations after recent attacks abroad. But he also argued that major differences between train stations and airports factor into the department's protection of those transportation modes.
"A train is not like an airplane," Johnson told reporters at that time, adding that a train station is a "much less confined space."
Brianna Gurciullo contributed to this report.
Senators ask TSA how it protects surface transportation from cyberattacks Back
By Eric Geller | 09/15/2016 05:04 PM EDT
"As surface transportation assets become increasingly automated, interconnected and reliant on advanced technologies, cyberattacks pose a clear and present danger," the lawmakers wrote in a letter to TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger. "We must remain vigilant on all fronts including cyber."
Booker and Fischer said they were concerned that the TSA only devoted 3 percent of its budget and 2 percent of its personnel to protecting surface transportation systems.
The lawmakers pointed out three trends that should concern the TSA from a cybersecurity perspective: Shipping companies rely on computerized cargo sorting and processing, trains are increasingly using automated positive train control technology and driverless cars are starting to become a commercial and personal reality.
The letter asks Neffenger what surface transportation elements are most vulnerable to cyberattacks, how the TSA and other parts of the government protect those assets, whether the agency is developing a "comprehensive cyber model" and how it incorporates cyber into emergency exercises.
Senate clears water infrastructure bill with aid for Flint Back
By Annie Snider | 09/15/2016 12:14 PM EDT
A day after Donald Trump's inauspicious trip to Flint, Mich., the city that has become Ground Zero in the election-year fight over which candidate will better address the nation's crumbling infrastructure, the Senate gave its overwhelming support to a bill that aims to tackle some of the country's most crippling water problems.
The bill provides $220 million to help Flint and other cities address aging and failing infrastructure by replacing lead pipes, upgrading treatment works and prioritizing investments. Its 95-3 passage marks the first time either chamber has passed legislation in response to the lead contamination crisis that left nearly 100,000 residents without safe drinking water in Flint for more than two years, although the provision faces hurdles in the House.
The Flint aid is just a piece of the Senate's $10.6 billion Water Resources Development Act, which also advances projects to help Florida's beaches that were choked by toxic algae this year, and re-ups major restoration programs for Lake Tahoe and the Great Lakes, among other areas. It also gives the go-ahead to more than two dozen new navigation, flood protection and ecosystems projects across the country; creates a water infrastructure investment trust fund; and encourages federal, state and local governments to prepare for sea-level rise and drought.
The bill's passage comes in the heat of a presidential campaign where the need for more infrastructure funding has been among the few points of agreement between Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Clinton's $275 billion plan calls for the creation of an infrastructure bank and a focus on upgrading drinking water systems and dams, among other areas.
Trump received a chilly reception at the mostly black church in Flint where he spoke after touring the city's mothballed water treatment plant. A pastor chastised him for politicizing the Flint visit, but Trump received a raucous reception when he recounted the trip later at a campaign rally.
"It used to be cars were made in Flint and you couldn't drink the water in Mexico," Trump said to cheers from the mostly white crowd in Canton, Ohio, repeating a line that fell flat in Flint. "Now cars are made in Mexico and you can't drink the water in Flint."
Trump has promised additional infrastructure investment if elected, but not yet released a detailed infrastructure plan. His campaign says one is coming.
Thursday's Senate vote underscores the extent to which Congress is still willing to come together behind big infrastructure bills whose benefits are distributed throughout the country, and WRDA's success represents a capstone for Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and ranking member Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). The duo could not be more different on environmental issues, but they have been extraordinarily productive in areas where they have found common ground.
The water bill is just the latest in a string of against-the-odds wins in Inhofe and Boxer's final session of Congress helming the committee together, after they won passage of an overhaul to the country's chemical safety law and a five-year highway bill in the past year.
But many of the WRDA bill's provisions remain in limbo in the House, where the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed a much narrower measure focused just on Army Corps of Engineers projects in May, and leaders have yet to take the bill up on the floor. The Senate bill's Flint funding deal and expansion of EPA drinking water programs could face opposition from conservative Republicans, but House Democrats may balk at some of the regulatory compromises Boxer made to get those items into the bill.
The House may take up its narrower bill next week, Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said Wednesday, noting he has been talking to leadership "every hour, probably" about how to advance the measure.
But there appear to be no immediate plans among House Republican leaders to move on the Flint provisions. Democrats say they want to see the Flint aid advance before the election, but are open to a variety of vehicles, including not just the WRDA bill, but also a short-term spending bill and a potential disaster aid bill for Louisiana and other states.
The fight to send federal aid to Flint fiercely divided lawmakers this spring, when Democrats lead by Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow held up a bipartisan energy measure over the issue. The battle touched deep partisan fault lines over the role of the federal government and when spending to address a crisis must be offset.
It wasn't until Inhofe partnered up with Stabenow and fellow Michigan Democrat Gary Peters that the effort began to gain traction. Also key to the deal was an agreement by the Michiganders to pay for the aid by effectively ending the Energy Department's advanced vehicle manufacturing program, which was aimed at securing a future for Detroit's top industry. And the scope of the assistance broadened beyond a single city; the package would send $100 million to Flint, spend $70 million for infrastructure across the country, and sprinkle the remaining millions across a variety of related programs.
With a modest infrastructure bill focused on the Army Corps of Engineers already in the works, Inhofe and Boxer decided to join the two issues and attempt a much more ambitious take on the country's water challenges.
"We have so many flood control projects ... we have the Flint, Mich., situation, we've got Lake Tahoe in there, everything for so many states," Boxer told reporters this week. "We keep commerce moving, we do ecosystem restoration, now we're diving into clean water, which is a new thing, which is very important right now."
To be sure, the WRDA provisions stop short of the hardest and most fundamental challenge: updating the 40-year-old Safe Drinking Water Act and even older Clean Water Act, the two laws that form the bedrock of the nation's water protections, but are widely seen as sorely outdated. Still, the bill would offer the most substantive updates to the drinking water and wastewater programs in decades.
For instance, the bill creates and funds a grant program to help impoverished communities - home to a preponderance of Safe Drinking Water Act violations - come into compliance, and another to help such communities replace lead pipes.
It also advances an effort long called for by the nation's mayors to allow communities with undersized sewer systems to plan their upgrades in a more strategic way that prioritizes human health and can save cash-strapped cities millions of dollars.
By the time the bill hit the floor last week, lawmakers ranging from Texan John Cornyn, the Senate's No. 2 Republican and a staunch fiscal conservative, to liberal Marylander Ben Cardin had taken to the floor in its support.
"This bill serves as just another example of what we can accomplish when we put politics aside and work together in the best interest of the American people," Cornyn said last week.
In fact, it was Democrats who posed the 11th hour hurdle to the measure, when Minority Leader Harry Reid expressed concerns about taking up the bill in a short legislative session between summer recess and October campaigning when top-priority issues including a short term funding deal and a Zika bill remained undone. A successful bill also presented a political problem for Democrats whose campaign message emphasizes a dysfunctional Senate as they fight to wrest back control of the chamber in November. But under pressure from Stabenow and other Democrats - and with initial steps underway on the top issues - Reid relented. And once it was on the floor, there was no stopping the popular bill.
Now attention turns to the House, where any effort to pass aid for Flint will likely move separately from the WRDA bill, at least initially. In the lower chamber, drinking water issues belong not to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, but to the Energy and Commerce Committee, which happens to be helmed by Michigan Republican Fred Upton.
"Today's Senate vote marks an important milestone as we work to fulfill our commitment to the folks of Flint. Having just been in Flint with [Rep. Dan] Kildee, I saw first-hand all the work that needs to be done. I will continue to work with the Michigan Delegation, and all my colleagues, as we work together to provide much needed assistance," Upton said in a statement.
An Energy and Commerce Committee aide said Upton would defer to "Shuster's judgment when it comes to the best way to advance a WRDA bill through the House and remains hopeful we can get to conference on a bill and build upon the Senate's work while bringing our own ideas to the table."
Kildee, a Democrat whose district includes Flint, said he has been in frequent contact with the White House and congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle to reach a deal. Kildee said Democrats would be just as happy to get the Flint provisions attached to a continuing resolution, but GOP aides have questioned whether that is feasible given that the offset for the drinking water aid also pays for other projects in the WRDA bill.
The Flint effort was helped early this month when Rick Snyder, the Republican governor of Michigan who has come under fierce criticism for his administration's role in the Flint crisis, came out for the first time in support of federal aid.
"Gov. Snyder is appreciative of any and all efforts at the federal level that will help the people of Flint recover from the water crisis," Ari Adler, a spokesman for Snyder, told POLITICO earlier this month. He noted that the state has already provided $234 million to the recovery effort and that "additional resources from the federal level would of course be beneficial and welcome."
Disaster-aid trial balloons sinking as Congress presses on CR Back
By Nick Juliano | 09/15/2016 06:15 PM EDT
Senators from Louisiana, West Virginia and Michigan are pushing to secure financial aid for home-state catastrophes in a stopgap spending bill, but GOP leaders are warning those requests are likely to remain unfulfilled until after the election.
A must-pass continuing resolution is likely to be the only legislation Congress enacts before returning to the campaign trail later this month, and lawmakers had been eyeing the bill as a vehicle to address natural disasters, including the recent Baton Rouge flooding, and man-made crises, like the lead contamination that has left Flint, Mich., without safe drinking water for more than two years. Lawmakers have already promised to use the CR to address the Zika crisis, which has been the subject of difficult negotiations over the last several months, and there appears to be little appetite to add more items to the bill before the Senate takes it up next week - though no final decisions have been made.
"The problem is there's a lot of different needs from a lot of different states," Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said of calls to address various disasters, including in his home state, this month. "I think what makes [the] most sense is to deal with the CR and then come back and deal with that later on, when the needs are clearer and quantified."
Democrats this week had said that Flint should be a part of any disaster-funding package that went into a CR, but they also have been pushing to aid Flint and similarly situated cities with a $220 million add-on to the Water Resources Development Act. That bill passed the Senate 95-3 on Thursday, but the House companion that is expected to pass next week does not address drinking-water needs.
Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said he was confident the differences between the two bills could be worked out in a conference committee, and he vowed not to accept a final product that did not address Flint. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said he, Inhofe and EPW ranking member Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) could work out the differences between the House and Senate bills. "We share the same goal of sending a WRDA bill to the president before the end of this Congress," Shuster said.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who helped secure the Flint provisions in WRDA, said Democrats would demand they be included in a CR if other disasters like Baton Rouge are addressed. "I can't imagine having a bill with floods and not Flint," she said, but noted that discussions are ongoing.
"We want to get this done before Congress breaks again for the election. ... If that does not happen, I feel confident we'll be able to get this done by the end of the year," Stabenow said on a conference call before the Senate vote.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who has been leading the charge to address the Baton Rouge flooding, said he wanted to get money to his constituents as soon as possible. He noted that FEMA already had sufficient resources on hand, unlike in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but added that community development block grants did not go to New Orleans until December 2005, some four months after the storm. Cassidy said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell assured him the money would be available eventually.
"I've been assured by the leader that money will be going to help those folks rebuild," Cassidy told reporters Thursday. "The question is the timing, and we always knew the time frame for the CR was incredibly tight."
Cassidy acknowledged that aid for Flint would make it easier to secure aid for Louisiana, and he encouraged his former colleagues in the House to accept it in a WRDA bill.
"Obviously, Flint is in the WRDA bill, and if there's some way ... for the House to signal that the WRDA bill is going to be considered favorably, that's a very positive thing," he said.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), whose home state experienced flooding earlier this summer, said West Virginia and Louisiana officials were working together to get Congress to address both disasters through whichever vehicle is available. Manchin said his fellow Democrats were also committed to getting aid to Flint, and were optimistic about the chances for that to happen via WRDA.
While Michigan Democrats are not giving up on any potential avenues, they say the water infrastructure bill would be the preferred path. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said WRDA remains "Plan A," and he praised Inhofe's commitment Thursday to keeping that provision in a final bill.
"I applaud that comment, and I think it's a very strong indication of where the Senate is in a bipartisan way, and all my colleagues are united in getting this done," Peters told reporters.
Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), whose district includes Flint, said he also was encouraged by Inhofe's commitment but was waiting to hear from House Republicans before deciding how to vote on WRDA next week. Kildee said he would push for the aid to be added to any bill available for the remainder of the year. "The CR, potentially WRDA, obviously the omnibus - whatever is the next one up; time matters to the people of Flint," he said.
The Senate is scheduled to vote Monday to open debate on its CR, the text of which remains under negotiation. The House is not expected to act until the Senate passes a bill.
House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) suggested disaster relief was not likely to be added to the CR. "We don't have from the administration any details on their request," he said, though he added that he was meeting with Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards on Thursday and would try to find ways to help the Pelican State.
If Louisiana, Flint and other disasters are left out of a CR, lawmakers will most likely have to wait until a lame-duck session to secure federal assistance. And it appears that everyone will have to get some funding commitments if anyone is going to.
"You're not going to deal with just one state and not deal with every other state that's similarly situated, so that's why it didn't make sense to me to do it now," Cornyn said. "But, as I said, there hasn't been any decision made."
Anthony Adragna, Annie Snider and Ben Weyl contributed to this report.
Two bills allowing feds to use Uber pass House panel Back
By Tanya Snyder | 09/15/2016 11:13 AM EDT
The House Oversight Committee approved two bills this morning freeing federal workers to branch out from traditional transportation modes.
"Innovative modes of transportation like Uber, Lyft, and bikeshare have improved the way we travel," said Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), one of the bill's sponsors, in a statement, "yet currently, federal employees are not able to take full advantage of these cost-effective options for official travel."
The bipartisan Modernizing Government Travel Act (H.R. 5625) clarifies to agencies that they should reimburse employees for official travel using Uber and other shared transportation options. The GSA told agencies earlier this year that they were permitted to reimburse for these modes, but this legislation would require them to.
A second bill approved by the committee today by unanimous consent allows Washington-area federal employees to use their transit benefits for ride-sharing services during Metro's year-long SafeTrack program. Bill sponsor Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) says the Transportation Benefit Expansion Act (H.R. 6008) will "ease the burden off of the Metrorail system while it is repaired." Connolly notes that the federal workforce accounts for more than 35 percent of Metro's ridership, and nearly half of federal employees take Metro to work.
Trains Built Roanoke. Science Saved It. Back
By Colin Woodard | 09/15/2016 08:14 PM EDT
A decade ago, the U.S. Census counted 15 people living in Roanoke's downtown.
If the world knew anything about the city of 100,000 in southwest Virginia, it was likely because of the massive illuminated star beaming down from a nearby mountain, a sad reminder of a long-ago era when holiday shoppers, bearing paychecks from the railroad that dominated the local economy, thronged the downtown department stores.
Now Roanoke is back on the map, with people at home and away starting to talk about it in a way they haven't since the 1880s, when the "Magic City" sprang up out of nearly nowhere around a new railway interchange like some Far West gold-mining town. The downtown has been revitalized and, for the first time in its history, has 2,000 people living in it, many of them getting to and from other parts of the city via a refurbished greenbelt. A highly competitive medical school and world-class, $77 million neurosciences research institute have both sprung up near the hospital, and the institute is about to double its size. People from the outside world-attracted by the beauty of the surrounding Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains-are moving in, reversing a 30-year population decline. Schools are good, crime is at a half-century low, and a public broadband network just doubled Internet speeds. Passenger rail service to Washington's Union Station is making its return, and a tourism industry is flourishing where none existed before. The latest bit of good news, Oregon-based Deschutes Brewery, the eighth-largest craft brewery in the country, announced in March that it had chosen Roanoke for the site of its $85 million East Coast hub, bringing an initial 108 jobs.
"Up until 2005, it was always, 'Woe is us, and it's so bad, and there was this star, which was kind of an embarrassment,'" recalls Beth Doughty, executive director of the Roanoke Regional Partnership, which markets the region to potential investors. "Now there's a groundswell of love for the place, of community pride. We're celebrating that star."
How did a small city in a disadvantaged region four hours from a major metropolis-one that had seen its signature industries atrophy or depart, that lacked so much as a branch campus of a state university-transform itself from the forgotten stepsister of the Appalachians into a formidable rival to Asheville, North Carolina? The answer has lessons for small, out-of-the-way cities everywhere: Roanoke's people did it largely by themselves, in small steps and with an eye to assets and alliances in the wider region around them. "At some point we realized that we may never have the white knight come in with a Volkswagen auto plant and give us a quick win," says Lisa Garst, a former city councilor in neighboring Salem who now heads Livable Roanoke Valley, a nonprofit that aims to engage citizens, governments and businesses in a regional planning process. "We realized what's going to happen is going to come from people who are already invested here, know the value of the area and can stick it out for a 20-, 30- or 40-year time frame."
And it all happened in what would seem the most unlikely of places: a city created, built and controlled for most of its history by the distant investors of that most controlling and rapacious of Industrial Age corporations, the railroad.
Virginia may be the site of the first successful English colony and cradle of presidents, but Roanoke is an extremely young city. In 1881-when Philadelphia was about to celebrate its bicentennial and there were 61,000 people living in Richmond-what's now downtown Roanoke was nothing but fields, cow pastures and marsh a mile and a half west of the village of Big Lick, population 650.
In February of that year, E.W. Clark & Company of Philadelphia dispatched surveyors to Roanoke County to find the best spot to build a hub that would connect the two railroads it had acquired: the Shenandoah Valley Railroad (which was expanding north to south) and the Norfolk & Western (which ran east to west). Big Lick's businessmen offered the company $10,000, a free acre of land and tax exemptions if it would build the hub in their hamlet. The company agreed, took the incentives, and, to the locals' surprise, began construction of a brand new community not in their hamlet but a mile and a half to the east near the foot of Mill Mountain. They named it Roanoke (because "Big Lick" just wouldn't do) and within weeks it dwarfed the older village and would soon spread west and absorb it.
In a matter of months, Clark & Company's subsidiaries laid out a new street grid on the banks of the rail line and constructed 128 houses, a depot, shops, iron works, railroad offices and the grand Hotel Roanoke, which has served as the city's central landmark ever since. Demographers define "boomtowns" as having a 15 percent annual growth rate. In the first decade after the company's arrival, Roanoke's population increased an average of 290 percent a year and the city became Virginia's third biggest after Richmond and Norfolk. The speed of the growth meant a certain lack of polish. The Hartford Courant's correspondent found "streets of temporary wooden shops and dwellings, drinking shops and 'hotels' with false board fronts hiding the upper half stories and big letter signs after the manner of the West." As in the instant cities of the Far West, there were drunken fights in the saloons and brothels, unpaved roads that turned to mud when it rained and reeking open sewers beside wood sidewalks. "The town," the Baltimore Sun reported, "suggests a mining camp or a mushroom city of Colorado."
Roanoke's ribald reputation chastened company officials, motivating their wives to organize civic improvement efforts in the first decade of the 20th century, culminating in their contracting celebrated landscape architect John Nolen to the city in 1907. Nolen, a student of Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., is generally credited with being the father of American city planning, and for Roanoke he created what was the nation's first comprehensive city plan. Nolen, who had been raised in an orphanage and had a rather un-Victorian empathy for the poor, was appalled that the city had "no public gardens, parks, parkways, no playground, no attractive school yards, no monuments, no public library, no open plazas or public squares ... and no public buildings of distinction." He found the living conditions in the African-American neighborhood-home to a third of the population-completely unacceptable. His plan called for comprehensive investments throughout Roanoke, including a network of parks, a river walk along the Roanoke River, playgrounds in every ward, a grand city hall and library, and the purchase of Mill Mountain for the public, a resource he likened to Mount Royal in Montreal. The plan, he said, would turn Roanoke into the "most attractive city in the state if not the entire country." But the city fathers didn't like the idea of investing in black neighborhoods, and voters rejected even a scaled-down bond issue.
Nolen's plan was put on the shelf. Many of its recommendations would wait a century to be implemented.
For the next half-century, Roanoke settled into a comfortable company-town pattern, with the Norfolk & Western dominating the civic scene and the regional economy through its ownership of 400,000 acres of Appalachian coal country. The railway built its own locomotives and rolling stock near the town center, underwrote the construction of a hospital at the foot of Mill Mountain and donated land for parks and churches. The city remained sharply segregated, with African-Americans maintaining their own commercial and entertainment district right into the 1960s, when much of it was demolished in the name of "urban renewal."
By then, Roanoke had begun to feel the same forces undermining cities across the country. Federally subsidized superhighways tore through neighborhoods and funneled people to new homes in far-flung suburbs. Department stores, shops, restaurants and hotels followed them, eroding the tax base and the vitality of downtown. "By the mid-1970s, downtown Roanoke was in sad shape," says Dwayne Yancey, editorial page editor of the Roanoke Times . "The old farmer's market in its heart was a bad place-hookers, transvestites, dealers, all manner of shady characters. Decent people didn't go there." Educator Anita Price, who is African-American, arrived around this time from Baltimore, following her husband back to his home city. "I was depressed for two years because I looked around and thought, 'Oh, Lord, how am I going to give my children a good education, give them the cultural environment that we're used to in this area that looks absolutely devoid of any amenities?'" recalls Price, who is now vice-mayor. "It was segregated, the downtown was lily-white, and I saw no minority professionals. These things really concerned me."
The city council, deadlocked by factional differences-partisan, racial and parochial-couldn't take action. "They would argue with each other instead of doing strategic planning, like the federal Congress now," says retired bank executive Warner Dalhouse, who rallied city luminaries to do something about it. "Downtown was becoming a ghost town, but we believed it was the beating heart of the whole Roanoke Valley, the city lights of the whole western part of the state."
In 1975, Dalhouse and his colleagues saw an opening: The city had annexed a large chunk of county territory and, in order to give the new residents fair representation, a judge had ordered the entire city council, mayor and vice-mayor to go up for reelection, all at once. "It looked to several of us like a historic opportunity because you could elect a new council and get diversity and business expertise and energy and progressive ideas and mutual agreement all at the same time," Dalhouse says.
They drafted a bipartisan dream team-including preacher Noel Taylor (who would later become one of the first African-American mayors elected in a predominantly white Southern city) and Nick Taubman, son of the founder of Advance Auto Parts-ran them as the "Roanoke Forward" party, and raised the then unheard-of sum of $90,000 to promote their candidacies. "It was a landslide," Dalhouse recalls of the 1976 vote. "We elected all seven."
Roanoke has a strong city-manager form of government, and the dream team hired a young, energetic outsider for the position, Bern Ewert, who had to leave his previous gig in Stratford, Connecticut, after blowing the whistle on a bribery scheme. "In Roanoke, the charge from them to me was very broad: Integrate the city workforce, improve city relations, rebuild the neighborhoods and downtown, and lower taxes," recalls Ewert, who was 35 when he arrived just after New Year's in 1978. "And when you finished all that, come back and talk to us." The fact that past bond issues to do such things had been shot down by voters didn't make the task any easier. Nor did the local preference for demolishing historic buildings rather than renovating them, as Ewert proposed.
But Ewert gathered up his courage and did what nobody had previously dared to do. He went to Jack Fishwick, president of the Norfolk & Western, a man who determined the fate of entire counties in the Kentucky and West Virginia coal country but didn't participate in city politics because, as Ewert puts it "they were so powerful they were afraid they'd skew things. I was scared of him, like everyone else was." But he made his pitch: To save downtown, they needed his support. Fishwick agreed and, like magic in the Magic City, winds began filling the reformer's sails. The local CBS television affiliate agreed to give Ewert's team two prime-time slots a week to present and solicit public ideas and preferences for the revitalization of downtown, an effort called Design 79. A local department store gave his staff a storefront where they collected thousands of ideas and suggestions from more spotlight-averse citizens. "The idea was to get as many citizens involved as we possibly could," Dalhouse says. "By the time it got to a vote"-for the $15.5 million bond issue to move forward-"literally thousands were invested in it."
The resulting plan was modular, so it could be tackled piece by piece, and included revamping the historic city market building as a food emporium, adding benches, trees and awnings to the surrounding farmers market, expanding the library and a downtown park, building parking garages and connecting downtown and the Hotel Roanoke with a new pedestrian bridge over the busy rail corridor. The centerpiece was a rehabilitation of a large 1920s commercial building on Market Square to serve as the new rent-free home of several area museums and theaters. "We knew we needed a magnet-the equivalent of an anchor store at a shopping center-to attract people to the center," Ewert recalls. The referendum passed on the first try, with a 55 percent majority.
The joint museum space, Center on the Square, was an instant hit, with 40,000 visitors on its opening weekend in 1983. "That was a real red-letter date," says Yancey of the Times. "It gave people a reason to go there; restaurants and businesses followed, and the trend line has just continued from there."
But just as downtown was flickering back to life as an entertainment district, the rest of the city was reeling from a body blow to its identity from which it took two decades to recover.
The shocking announcement came on an early spring day in 1982. The Norfolk & Western, which had been based in the city since its foundation, was merging with a D.C.-based rival and moving its headquarters to Norfolk, 240 miles away. The new Norfolk Southern would shed 1,500 local jobs-a third of the total and including many clerical positions-beginning a long, slow retreat from the city it had built. "In those days, they didn't give you three weeks of media chatter beforehand, they just made an announcement and boom!" says Doughty, who worked for a local public relations firm at the time. "We were pretty happy, content and self-satisfied being a railroad town, so that was quite a kick in the pants for the community and the region."
The blows kept coming. The railroad closed the Hotel Roanoke, now a Tudor-style, 382-room edifice and as much a symbol of the town as the Mill Mountain star, shutting off its fountains and dispatching liquidators to sell off its furnishings. "To see that place closed with a chain link around it was just more bad news," says Ray Smoot, a veteran administrator at Virginia Tech, 35 miles to the west in Blacksburg. Not long thereafter, the railroad abandoned its grand headquarters building down the hill from the hotel. People looked to the local banking powerhouse, Dominion, to fill the void, only to have it absorbed by a Charlotte rival in 1992. "It really set up a decade of civic angst," says Yancey. "If we're not a railroad town and we're not a banking town, what are we?"
But the marginalization of traditional power had a silver lining, observes Ed Walker, a native son who was attending Washington & Lee University School of Law, an hour to the northeast, at the time. "Everybody used to pack up their briefcases and go to the railroad and the bank to see if they could build this museum or do x, y or z," he says. "Now there was nowhere to go to anymore. The city had to look to itself. And that created a power vacuum that let some talented and interesting and unexpected change agents come forward and try things that never could have happened when I was growing up."
The first such agent was a very large one, Virginia Tech, a public research university in the next valley to the west that had never had much to do with Roanoke. "Virginia Tech did not at the time have a first-class hotel or conference center on its campus in Blacksburg," says Smoot, then the CEO of the Virginia Tech Foundation, the university's investment arm. "And there was the iconic Hotel Roanoke sitting there empty." The railroad agreed to donate the hotel to the university foundation, which allied with city officials and local civic leaders to raise $28 million to completely rehabilitate the structure, while the city put up $14 million to build a conference center wing, which opened in 1995. "That's the thing that began Virginia Tech's relationship with Roanoke," Smoot says. A decade later, that relationship would move into overdrive, transforming both parties.
Other higher education institutions in the region-from Roanoke College in Salem to the Virginia Community College system-partnered with civic leaders and the state to turn the old Norfolk & Western headquarters building into a higher education center, where various institutions could offer classes, continuing education and workforce training. "We're going to change this town from a blue-collar town into a university town," retired Norfolk & Southern chief Fishwick proclaimed during this era. "I think it's the greatest thing to happen in Roanoke in my lifetime." The center enrolls 2,800 students at a time, and by 2010 was estimated to be boosting the local economy by $32 million.
Meanwhile, a deteriorating sewer line winding along the overgrown and ignored banks of the Roanoke River was wearing out, requiring that the city establish a right of way to properly replace it. A local nonprofit, the Valley Beautiful Foundation, introduced city leaders to the greenway concept in John Nolen's 1907 plan: a riverside park with walking or biking trails connecting the city's districts. Slowly, starting in the late 1990s, a greenway expanded along the new sewer lines, eventually to extend into a 285-mile network crisscrossing the valley between the Appalachian Trail to the north and the Blue Ridge Parkway to the south. They were immediately popular. "We had problems with trying to keep people off the greenways until we finished constructing them," recalls Darlene Burcham, who was city manager during much of the build-out. "People could live in one place and work in another and not have to get in their car."
As the greenways expanded, Walker, by then a young, third-generation attorney doing due diligence reviews for businesses, was getting frustrated with the creative and financial limits of his profession, which was not always in alignment with his desire to effect positive social change. He had helped open the Downtown Music Lab, a nonprofit providing at-risk teens a place to play and record music (musician Dave Matthews was among the donors), but it was a project assigned to him by Dalhouse, the retired bank executive, that showed him another path.
"I had early on identified Walker as a talent and had decided to give him some nudging in one direction or another," Dalhouse says. A historic movie palace in Roanoke's declining Grandin Village neighborhood was up for sale, and local do-gooders needed help raising $1.6 million to buy and rehabilitate it as a community theater. His instincts about Walker were spot on.
"I just had this epiphany about the incredible convening power of real estate," recalls Walker, who was amazed by how quickly people and money rallied around the project. "Nothing moves faster than community-minded capital with investing in a community's real estate. You can take the status quo and change it immediately." Anchored by the theater, the Grandin neighborhood promptly bounced back and is now one of the city's most desirable areas.
So, in 2002, Walker quit the law and embarked on a series of profitable, but socially minded, redevelopments in the heart of the city, a place Design 79 had shored up as an entertainment and a shopping district but where a grand total of 15 people actually lived, most of them in apartments above their ground-floor place of business. The first was the stately 10-story Colonial American Bank building, which he and a partner purchased for $1.4 million in 2003 and renovated as upscale condos ranging in size from 3,000 to 4,800 square feet. Walker's family moved into the top floor and his partner into another condo, and Dalhouse purchased a third (which he and his wife live in today), prompting other well-heeled buyers to follow suit. Walker then bought the former Grand Piano and Furniture Company block nearby and, with the help of historic tax credits and an $880,000, no-interest loan from the city housing authority, converted it into 58 mixed-income apartments. "Condos were one thing, but it was largely unknown how many people would pay rent to live down here," Walker says. To his shock, the entire building was leased on opening day. "Everybody looked at each other and said, 'What just happened?'"
Since then, Walker has helped develop Kirk Avenue, which runs behind the City Market area, as a restaurant and arts corridor, including a music hall that offers traveling bands free loft accommodations upstairs; transformed the decaying Patrick Henry Hotel into a mixed commercial and residential space with 134 apartments and a restored ballroom; and purchased a beloved local radio station to prevent it from abandoning its funky indie-folk-country format. He's also donated a park and playground in Grandin Village, and developed inexpensive condos in a former Cotton Mill in another part of the city and a large riverfront property that now houses an enormous rock climbing gym. Combined, his projects to date run to some $70 million and 600,000 square feet. He founded an annual conference-CityWorks (X)po-that draws 350 experts to Roanoke to discuss "big ideas for small cities." "Ed's a very unusual developer in that he didn't want to make a lot of money and run, but was more interested in the long-term benefit to the community," says Burcham, the former city manager. "He realized we needed various income levels of housing, and he did that."
By the late aughts, downtown was taking on a 24/7 vibe, with more shops, businesses and eateries moving in to cater to residents, who numbered in the hundreds and total more than 2,000 today. A local art museum, having outgrown Center on the Square as the result of a large bequest, raised $66 million to build the new, 85,000-square-foot Taubman Museum of Art two blocks away, which opened in 2008. Even with the Great Recession that kicked off later that year, the city moved forward with step-by-step investments: two new high schools, an award-winning renovation of the main library, the revamping of a downtown park and amphitheater (which reopened with a concert by Sheryl Crow), and the continued expansion of trails and bike paths.
"Hail Mary passes-going after The One Big Thing-often fail," says Chris Morrill, a past president of the Government Finance Officers Association, who has been city manager since 2010. "You go for rapid incrementalism. You figure out where you want to go and you just keep moving: market building, new park, greenways, plaza, reopening the formal entrance of City Hall. You keep the momentum going and eventually all the naysayers say, 'How did we get here?'"
Beth Doughty of the Regional Partnership agrees. "People want economic development to be a silver bullet, but it's not. It's like spinning plates," she says. "No one person or entity is responsible for all of the plates, but you do want them all spinning at the same time."
But Roanoke still had a problem: What did it want to be?
Despite the progress, the city remained in an identity crisis through the 1990s and well into the aughts, disheartened that it had been left behind by upland Southern rivals such as Asheville and Charlotte. "I was asked from the day I arrived, 'What is your vision of the city?'" says Burcham, who was city manager from 2000 to early 2010. "I said it's not my vision, it's the community's vision, but everybody needs to get away from the idea that the goal was to be Charlotte, that if we didn't get a particular airline coming here we were doomed."
Meanwhile, the board of the Roanoke Regional Partnership-a joint venture of regional city and county governments that spent much of its time trying to lure northeastern manufacturers to the region-decided it wanted to also focus on improving the area's competitiveness. "Talent is the currency of the 21st century, and we needed to be more concerned about attracting it," says Doughty, who left her position as head of the regional chamber of commerce in 2008 to take on the task. Essential to that was finding a new narrative the community could embrace, she says, and it became clear to her what it was. "If you asked people what's the best thing about Roanoke, they would say, 'The mountains, they're so beautiful,'" she says. "But they talked about them like they were wallpaper. If we could embrace the idea we were an outdoors city, we could monetize the outdoors and really strengthen the region's real advantage, its livability."
The Partnership hired a full-time outdoor branding guru, Pete Eshelman, who set about building partnerships with governments, businesses, nonprofits, and state and federal park authorities to extend trails, reopen whitewater rafting destinations, improve fishing and launch America's Toughest Marathon, an annual event so-called because running it involves a 7,400-foot ascent. He's helped organize professional road-cycling events, get a top BMX rider to develop a plan for an action sports park and raise money to build new canoe ramps and kayak park on the river. "This could only work if we had buy-in from the community, so it had to be real and true," Eshelman says. "Now when they travel somewhere and talk with people about what Roanoke is like, an outdoor narrative is going to be part of the description, and that wasn't the case before."
Simultaneously, the region's visitor promotion agency, which previously focused on getting conventions to come to town, began marketing the area as "Virginia's Blue Ridge," a place of scenic beauty and outdoor adventure with a happening city in the middle. As a result, over the past five years travel spending has grown by more than a fifth, and hotel revenue by 25 percent. More visitors are coming-creating 600 more jobs-but the real goal of the effort is to get some of them to decide to come back and put down roots. "This is more than just tourism; this is workforce development, because we're competing for world talent," says Landon Howard, the agency's president.
A good thing, too, because suddenly Roanoke needed to recruit a lot of very talented people very quickly to partake in the most consequential undertaking since E.W. Clark & Company showed up back during Chester Arthur's presidential administration.
There's been a hospital at the foot of Mill Mountain since 1900, when railroad officials decided they needed a place for injured workers to be treated. The current incarnation, Roanoke Memorial, was by the early 21st century the flagship of a sprawling nonprofit hospital network, a fleet of air ambulances and the only Level I trauma center in the western half of the state. The network, Carilion, was financially sound, but changes in how health care providers are reimbursed required that it shift its focus from managing hospitals to improving health outcomes across the surrounding communities, a clinic model that required a hiring bonanza, including a quadrupling of its physician staff. But how to recruit and retain so many highly skilled people to come to the mountains of southwestern Virginia?
An essential component would be to open a medical school in Roanoke, an attractive feature for many of medicine's best and brightest, recalls Nancy Agee, then Carilion's chief operations officer and now its CEO. "It creates a different vibe and helps satisfy the sense of curiosity that many of the best and brightest physicians have," she says. "We could do it ourselves, but wouldn't it make more sense to find a partner?"
By good fortune, a partner was close at hand. Down at Virginia Tech, President Charles Steger had challenged his institution to grow from a lower-50-ranked research university to one of the top 30 by 2013, a move that would require moving into fields funded by the National Institutes of Health. "We didn't have a human medicine school, but we did have a lot of experience with technology transfer and research-related entrepreneurship," says Smoot, the Virginia Tech administrator. "So a conversation began with Carilion."
The result was two joint ventures to be built in 2010 on what had been an old industrial site on the way from the hospital to downtown Roanoke: an elite, research-intensive medical school and a biomedical research institute with world-class aspirations. They approached Michael Friedlander, then chair of the neuroscience department at one of the nation's leading and largest medical research institutions, the Baylor College of Medicine at Houston's Texas Medical Center, to head the institute. "I only knew where Roanoke was because for some reason it was the place the Weather Channel gave for the region's temperatures," he says. "But they said you are going to get to build from scratch an innovative biomedical research enterprise and you can pretty much build it around your vision. And of course, you don't often get offered stuff like that. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Friedlander took the job but knew the greatest challenge would be attracting top people from established institutions like Texas Medical Center, which had more employees (105,000) than Roanoke had people. "I had been struck by the natural beauty of the place and by the people's pride in it and wanting to make it work," he says. "Most academic medical centers in the U.S. are in not-so-great parts of major cities. Here we're right next to a major health center with one of the top 12 busiest emergency departments in the country and you can go out at lunch time and be pulling trout out of the Roanoke River in hip waders." If he could get people to visit, Friedlander thought, he would have a shot.
His fishing expedition worked. Today, the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute has some of the top researchers in neuroscience working on everything from the decision-making patterns of drug addicts to the use of brain imaging in psychiatry. It will break ground soon on a $66 million expansion that will double the number of research teams to 50. The medical school next door is also research intensive, with the unusual requirement that students undertake a research project of publishable quality. Since its inception six years ago, it has had 4,600 applications for 42 spots. Commercial research spinoffs are beginning to populate the downtown side of the complex, an area being promoted as the Innovation Corridor.
"We've gone from a train city to a brain city," says Mayor Sherman Lea, who, like the vice-mayor, circuit court clerk, school board chair and other city-wide elected officials, is African-American. ("When you have a city with less than 30 percent African-Americans in the mountains next to Tennessee, you wouldn't think that. But that's how we've changed," he says of the electorate's choices.)
And soon it will be a beer city as well, having lured Deschutes here instead of long-envied Asheville and 48 other cities the brewery considered up and down the East Coast. Deschutes chief financial officer Peter Skrbek says he was drawn by logistics and clean water, the strong public schools and an outdoorsy culture akin to the company's home in Bend, Oregon. "But the biggest thing was just being wanted by the community and their enthusiasm for us to come there each time we would visit," he says. "I've never seen such enthusiasm for a company's investment."
When the Deschutes news broke, one industry publication declared Roanoke the new Asheville. Over at the Roanoke Times, Yancey's editorial responded: "We'd gently beg to differ," he wrote. "We're the new Roanoke."