Wall Street Journal: Road for Driverless Cars Pockmarked With Regulatory Pitfalls (full article follows Morning Transportation)
Companies from the Motor City to Silicon Valley welcomed the Obama administration’s new self-driving car policy this week, but there is still a long road ahead full of obstacles before robots entirely replace humans as motorists.
New York Times: In Backing Autonomous Cars, U.S. Tells Automakers to Figure It Out
The Obama administration’s approach to hands-free driving is remarkably hands-off.
Reuters: U.S. Proposes Regulators Have More Say in Self-Driving Car Design
The Obama administration proposed on Tuesday deeper government involvement in the design of autonomous vehicle systems and called on manufacturers to share more information about how such systems work and why they fail.
New York Times: Self-Driving Cars Gain Powerful Ally: The Government
Federal auto safety regulators on Monday made it official: They are betting the nation’s highways will be safer with more cars driven by machines and not people.
Washington Post: After years of secrecy, the auto industry feels federal push to share development data for driverless vehicles
The auto industry always has been a place that holds its secrets dear, trying to keep the look of its new models and the features they contain under wraps until the cars made it to the showroom.
Associated Press: Innovation, safety sought in self-driving car guidelines
Saying they were doing something no other government has done, Obama administration officials rolled out a plan Tuesday they say will enable automakers to get self-driving cars onto the road without compromising safety.
The Atlantic: A New Era for the Automobile
Here’s how it usually happens: Technology comes first, and the law follows. Airplanes first flew across the skies long before control towers popped up, and cellphones were ubiquitous long before texting-while-driving was outlawed. This makes sense. It’s difficult, bordering on impossible, to predict all the ways in which transformative new machines will change the world.
USA Today: U.S. aims to tame 'Wild West' of self-driving cars
Self-driving car advocates and observers are reacting with cautious approval Tuesday to the government's 112-page directive on the transformational technology.
Bloomberg Editorial: Set Self-Driving Cars Free
In publishing new guidelines for automated vehicles this week, the U.S. Transportation Department tacitly acknowledged two important truths: This technology will probably be great. And no one knows what will happen.
Wall Street Journal: Trucking Volumes Recovered in August (full article follows Morning Transportation)
Trucks moved more freight in August, several industry measures showed, though not all fleets took part in the rebound.
Bloomberg Politics: Acela Fight Splits Hedge-Fund Connecticut and Old-Money Enclaves
Connecticut’s residential coastline is two worlds, the one of newcomer millionaires and one whose wealth and New England roots span generations. Now, their differences over a rail route threaten to gum up plans for the U.S. Northeast’s fastest-ever trains.
Gadsden Times (Alabama): Pipeline scheduled to reopen Wednesday
Gasoline should begin flowing again Wednesday — through a temporary bypass on a critical pipeline — after a major leak in Alabama forced a shutdown that led to surging fuel prices and scattered gas shortages across the South, a company official said Tuesday.
Santa Monica Daily Press (California): The transportation revolution has begun
Regional officials gathered last week to announce a new plan to reduce traffic on Los Angeles roads and many details mirror efforts already underway in Santa Monica.
The Detroit News (Michigan): How we’re fixing Michigan’s infrastructure
For Michigan to have a robust economy, healthy communities, and a clean environment, we must take action to improve Michigan’s infrastructure.
5KFSM (Oklahoma): Oklahoma Department Of Transportation To Examine Railroad Crossing Safety
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation has called a special meeting where they have invited LeFlore County commissioners and officials with the Kansas City Southern Railway.
KY3 (Missouri): Tax cuts for Missourians result in cuts to transportation program
Earlier this year, the city announced the Jefferson Avenue Footbridge off of Commercial Street is closed for repairs through at least 2017. There was a ray of hope for funding when the city applied for a piece of the $20-million dollar Missouri Moves program, a MoDOT cost-sharing program paying for various projects.
WHNT (Alabama): What does Alabama need to keep up with transportation demands through 2040?
Alabama Department of Transportation leaders invited the public to a meeting Tuesday, asking for input on its future Statewide Transportation Plan.
By Brianna Gurciullo | 09/21/2016 05:42 AM EDT
With help from Tanya Snyder, Lauren Gardner and Jennifer Scholtes
QUESTIONS FOR OTHERS TO ANSWER: The driverless car guidance DOT released Tuesday leaves a lot of room for Congress, states and automakers to shape the direction of a technology that ultimately is meant to make human drivers obsolete. The 112-page document keeps existing authorities in place and tries to avoid holding back innovation, our Tanya Snyder reports for Pros.
Who does what: That leaves several issues - like licensing and liability for crashes - to the states, at least for now. However, the administration may ask Congress to approve some new oversight powers for DOT to approve vehicle designs before they come to market, give cease-and-desist orders in cases of imminent danger or require software changes for vehicles already on the road.
Congressional oversight: In the meantime, lawmakers seem to want to pore over the details and figure out how they fit in. "I think our role is oversight," Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune told reporters Tuesday. "We just want to make sure that they strike the right balance between safety and innovation. And I think that as we learn more about it, Congress' role in terms of that oversight function - we'll figure out a little bit more what that role is and how we can engage in the process."
Not a test subject: Jackie Gillan, the president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said in a statement Tuesday that the guidelines "must be considered a first step" and are no replacement for federal safety standards. "The DOT must ensure that the American public is not used to 'beta test' these new technologies," Gillan said. She cited the Takata airbag recall and Volkswagen emissions scandal as examples of "how the industry easily conceals problems from both the public and the government," and encouraged lawmakers to give NHTSA more power to regulate driverless vehicles.
Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator, had a similar reaction Tuesday, saying in a statement that DOT "must not shy away from assuring public safety with minimum federal vehicle safety standards."
Don't hold us back: The auto industry, meanwhile, warned against policies that would hold up automakers from rolling out semi-automated or fully automated technologies. "Establishing premature certification requirements, test procedures and performance criteria, dictating technology-specific approaches, or adopting a patchwork of ill-timed competing state rules would only inhibit vehicle innovation and limit these important life-saving safety improvements," the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said in a statement.
IT'S WEDNESDAY: Good morning and thanks for tuning in to POLITICO's Morning Transportation, your daily tipsheet on all things trains, planes, automobiles and ports. Please send tips, feedback and, of course, song lyrics to email@example.com or @brigurciullo.
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MORE REACTIONS TO DOT'S GUIDANCE:
- House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster: "The rapid pace of innovation in autonomous vehicle technology should not occur in a vacuum. There must be a consistent framework that helps guide the development, testing and delivery of autonomous vehicles to the marketplace without stifling innovation and the creativity of the free market. I look forward to more thoroughly reviewing NHTSA's guidelines and working with stakeholders in both industry and government on this important issue."
- Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council: "This policy gives carmakers and states the green light to innovate while keeping safety at the forefront. Until cars are truly autonomous with 100 percent reliability, we are still our cars' best safety feature. Today, NHTSA has provided a much-needed path forward; we hope innovative manufacturers will embrace the administration's guidelines as a blueprint for saving lives and preventing injuries."
- John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog's privacy project director: "This isn't the checkered flag to industry to irresponsibly develop robot cars that we had feared. It's not a secret, cozy process with the manufacturers, but includes a real commitment to transparency and public involvement. The administration clearly heard the concerns raised by safety advocates and has addressed many of them."
- David Strickland, former NHTSA administrator, now general counsel for Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets: "We support guidance that provides for the standardization of self-driving policies across all 50 states, incentivizes innovation, supports rapid testing and deployment in the real world. State and local governments also have complementary responsibilities and should work with the federal government to achieve and maintain our status as world leaders in innovation."
- John Bozzella, president and CEO of Global Automakers: "Global Automakers and its members remain committed to working with federal, state, and local governments to ensure there is a flexible, consistent framework for automated vehicle technologies so consumers can fully realize the benefits as quickly as possible. We also encourage the DOT to move quickly to issue its proposed rule for vehicle-to-vehicle communication, which is an important building block toward automated vehicles."
- Joe Okpaku, Lyft's vice president of government relations: "Very soon, autonomous vehicles will improve the way we live and travel. As regulators begin to focus on this exciting technology, Lyft believes that safety must be of paramount importance. Flexibility and innovation must also be preserved as this entirely new form of transportation comes to market. Much work remains ahead, but NHTSA's guidelines are a step in the right direction."
- Marta Tellado, president and CEO of Consumer Reports: "Consumers need more than just guidelines. This new policy comes with a lot of bark, but not enough bite. While these technologies have the potential to save lives, there must be strong federal standards to protect all drivers. We can't just leave it to the states to do the hard work of deciding whether to let a self-driving car on public roads."
- Marc Scribner, research fellow, Competitive Enterprise Institute: "Highway safety and access to qualified test drivers is crucial. But NHTSA failed to include a test driver license reciprocity provision in their model policy recommendations. ... Second, to prevent unnecessary cost and delay, Congress must reject any attempts to replace or augment NHTSA's traditional self-certification process with pre-market approval authority. ... Finally, Congress must provide aggressive oversight over NHTSA's existing regulatory mechanisms, namely letters of interpretation and exemptions."
STILL COOKING: The Senate may have cleared the way for debate to begin on the continuing resolution Tuesday evening, but there's still no deal for senators to publicly debate. That being said, POLITICO's Ben Weyl and Seung Min Kim report as of Tuesday evening that the issue of whether and how to address a rider affecting truckers' hours of service rules "was close to being resolved, according to one source familiar with the negotiations." Given how contentious the issue is, MT will take that to mean that fight will be shelved until December.
"I know there's an interest in preventing some of those regulations from going forward and I don't know at this point yet until we see some final language how they dealt with that," Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune told reporters Tuesday. "My guess is again that will probably be fairly controversial."
ON TO THE NEXT ONE: The House easily passed Tuesday a bill (H.R. 5785) to allow retired air traffic controllers to keep their federal retirement supplements if they decide to work as full-time instructors, our Lauren Gardner reported for Pros. The chamber also passed a bill (H.R. 5957) that would ensure disabled FAA employees who are wounded veterans may take advantage of a new sick leave category created for federal workers.
Members debated legislation (H.R. 5625) clarifying that federal agencies should reimburse their employees for using Uber, Lyft or other ride-sharing services for official travel, putting it on track for a vote later this week.
McCAUL LAYS INTO TSA: House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul wants an overhaul of TSA, claiming that the agency "has failed to provide the level of security and efficiency the flying public deserves," our Jennifer Scholtes reported for Pros. In a strategy he released Tuesday for combating terrorism, McCaul calls for more serious consequences for screening failures, better integration of private-sector personnel and technology, improvement of employee vetting and a review of organizations within TSA. He also wants DHS to require foreign airports to enhance their employee vetting.
The dangers of drones: In his 35-page strategy, McCaul mentions addressing the possibility that terrorists could use drones as weapons. "The gap between advances in drone technology and our own defenses is a serious homeland security risk," McCaul says. "Terrorists are already integrating these devices into their toolkit and considering them for attacks. Mitigating the threats should be a top government research priority, and we must cut through red tape to make sure private-sector innovations can be easily acquired to protect sensitive sites, mass gatherings, and other potential targets."
MT MAILBAG: Over 100 organizations, including the National Retail Federation, sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker on Tuesday listing their concerns over Hanjin Shipping's bankruptcy. "U.S. businesses rely on predictability in their supply chains, particularly during the busiest shipping season of the year," the groups wrote. "The recent bankruptcy filing has caused widespread disruptions in freight shipments worldwide." They urge Pritzker "to continue to work with the South Korean government to bring about a swift and economically beneficial resolution that will allow cargo to move through the global supply chain and give certainty to U.S. businesses."
THE AUTOBAHN (SPEED READ):
- After years of secrecy, the auto industry feels federal push to share development data for driverless vehicles. The Washington Post.
- Tesla fixes security bugs after claims of Model S hack. Reuters.
- In Bridgegate trial, Fort Lee mayor details pressure to endorse Gov. Chris Christie. POLITICO New Jersey.
- Brooklyn councilman calls for a "freight-capable" Gateway, setting off a political spat. POLITICO New Jersey.
- Weather company delivers AI-based services to airline cockpits. The Wall Street Journal.
THE COUNTDOWN: DOT appropriations run out in 8 days. The FAA reauthorization expires in 373 days. The 2016 presidential election is in 47 days. Highway and transit policy is up for renewal in 1,473 days.
THE DAY AHEAD:
10 a.m. - The Senate Commerce Committee marks up the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016 and other legislation. 253 Senate Russell Building.
11:15 a.m. - Richard McKinney, DOT's chief information officer, speaks at the Professional Services Council's 2016 Tech Trends Conference. Arlington, Va.
Did we miss an event? Let MT know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stories from POLITICO Pro
Driverless car guidance leaves key questions open - on purpose Back
By Tanya Snyder | 09/20/2016 07:03 PM EDT
The DOT's new driverless car guidance is a document that leaves unanswered many more questions than it resolves - and that's by design.
In general, DOT's much awaited policy document maintains existing authorities and attempts to avoid stifling the burgeoning industry by taking too heavy a hand.
"We're intentionally not being prescriptive about how these safety areas need to be fulfilled," a senior DOT official said in a briefing with reporters Tuesday. "That could stifle innovation. ... DOT is not saying we know all the right answers. This is still very much developing."
In fact, many of the steps necessary to move the country toward a driverless car future will have to be taken by Congress, states and auto manufacturers.
But the very patchwork of state-by-state regulations the agency hopes to avoid could end up being created by leaving so many questions up to individual states.
"DOT published what it could, and it could not go farther because of all the unknowns of this technology," said Timothy Carone, a professor of data science and artificial intelligence at the University of Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business, who studies autonomous systems. "Left to the states, there should be an expectation of patchwork regulations."
For instance, at least for now, cars will still be required to have steering wheels and brake pedals because they're required by federal standards. However, the DOT has an exemption process manufacturers can go through, and officials have made it clear that they're moving toward a vision of fully autonomous vehicles that don't require human intervention.
Although steering wheels and brake pedals are still required, DOT so far is staying away from mandating the presence of a licensed driver capable of using them. Issues of licensing are left to the states, as are several of the most persistent questions about driverless cars, including the crucial issue of who is liable in the case of a crash or moving violation.
Traditional state laws governing motor vehicle operation apply when a human driver is in control. Federal guidance kicks in when the vehicle is operating autonomously. With some hybrid systems, control could constantly be shifting between the vehicle and the driver, meaning the regulatory authority would be constantly shifting as well.
Meanwhile, state endeavors to regulate self-driving cars - in California, for example - have helped spur action at the federal level. "California has a proposal only," said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind. "That's why this was needed now."
Part of the new guidance makes it clear that the administration will likely come to Congress seeking at least some additional authority, such as the ability to approve designs before they come to market - a "sea change" for the agency that would require an influx of new resources.
Congress would also need to give the green light to "cease and desist" authority for NHTSA, or the ability to expand its exemption program from the current 2,500 vehicles per year it's allowed.
The power to require software changes to cars already on the street would also need to get the go-ahead from Congress. Such power could simulate a 100 percent recall rate in case of a problem, with safety improvements issued electronically to cars without owners having to drive them to a lot for upgrades.
Congress could also help determine what kinds of tests are sufficient and whether a car developed in California could be used without modifications in Chicago, said Carone.
For now, lawmakers still seem to be trying to figure out where they fit in.
"I think our role is oversight," said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. "We'll figure out a little bit more what that role is and how we can engage in the process."
Carone said he isn't optimistic that Congress is up to the task.
"These new business models and technologies will be complex and evolve too quickly for Congress to do much at all," he said. He also cautioned that Congress will feel pressure to "do something" in the case of a fatality involving a driverless car. "They will be reactive," he said.
Industry groups by and large seem relieved to have any guidelines at all, and praised the process for being participatory and flexible.
Former NHTSA Administrator David Strickland - now general counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, a network of automakers working on autonomous vehicles - says "the agency has stepped into the void with this guidance and given itself the flexibility and the ability to evolve."
Strickland indicated that the 15-point safety assessment for vehicles did not include any surprises that deviated from what the agency had already telegraphed about its plans.
The guidance doesn't touch on vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technologies, which would share information about roadway conditions among all cars on the road. However, officials acknowledged that that V2V would be "very complementary to the future of autonomous vehicles."
While NHTSA's guidance takes effect immediately, DOT is opening a 60-day comment period and plans to update the guidance annually - at least until a rulemaking on the 15-point safety assessment for autonomous vehicles is complete. With a new administration taking over in just four months, it's anyone's guess when a final rule could be issued.
Jennifer Scholtes contributed to this report.
Safety group: Self-driving policy good 'first step,' but cautions against using Americans to 'beta test' Back
By Lauren Gardner | 09/20/2016 11:11 AM EDT
A highway safety group praised DOT's guidelines for driverless cars today while cautioning that they're no replacement for thorough safety standards and enhanced legal authorities.
"While we welcome innovation and the life-saving potential of [autonomous vehicles], we are concerned about life-threatening dangers in a rush to market," Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said in a statement. "The improvements promised by AVs needs to be framed and encouraged by federal safety standards which DOT has the authority to issue today. The DOT must ensure that the American public is not used to 'beta test' these new technologies."
Gillan cited recent scandals in the auto industry, including the ubiquity of deadly Takata airbags and Volkswagen's illegally polluting diesel vehicles, as evidence warning of "how the industry easily conceals problems from both the public and the government."
She called on Congress to grant NHTSA additional power and tools, such as imminent hazard authority to get dangerous cars off the road and pre-market approval for new technologies, to regulate self-driving vehicles.
Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator, echoed Gillan's concerns and urged DOT to fully exercise its rulemaking authority.
"Safety performance standards encourage competition among automotive companies because they help to assure a market for the real innovators and suppliers," she said in a statement. "The manufacturers always complain about new federal protections, but autonomous cars are a whole new technology with great promise but also with the potential for serious public harm."
Senate advances budget deal that doesn't exist yet Back
By Ben Weyl and Seung Min Kim | 09/20/2016 05:07 PM EDT
Mitch McConnell summoned his Republican Conference to a late afternoon meeting Tuesday with an unusual ask: Would his colleagues support moving forward on a spending deal that doesn't even exist yet?
The answer, surprisingly, was yes.
The Senate voted 89-7 on Tuesday evening to move forward on a bill that will eventually be used to fund the government through Dec. 9 and deliver $1.1 billion to fight the Zika epidemic. A bloc of conservatives voted no, but the measure easily cleared the 60-vote threshold to avoid a filibuster, powered by votes from Senate Democrats, centrist Republicans and GOP senators up for reelection.
"We've got a lot of work to do around here," said David Perdue (R-Ga.), who voted "no" due to concerns over the unorthodox process.
Yet enough Republicans supported McConnell on the matter because there are still several opportunities to block the bill later if senators believe they are getting a raw deal in the end, senators said. McConnell offered a brief update on the state of play to his caucus, but the main reason for the caucus meeting was to make sure there was enough support to begin a process that will eventually allow Senate Republicans to go home and campaign for reelection sooner, rather than later.
"There are negotiations that are ongoing and this bill in my views just sets the stage for an agreement that we hope occurs sooner rather than later," said Jerry Moran (R-Kansas).
Campaign finance, trucking safety and the internet domain system are among the grab-bag of issues keeping the Senate from a final deal to stave off a government shutdown at the end of this month. But the biggest hurdle, Zika, has been resolved without including any language that would block Planned Parenthood's partner clinic in Puerto Rico from accessing the federal grants - a key demand from Democrats.
"We want a clean CR, a clean Zika bill, period," said Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Senate Democrat. "We'll save the debate on the riders for the lame-duck session."
McConnell reporters the parties were "close" to finalizing an agreement Tuesday afternoon, but noted he would want senators to have some time to consider it before moving forward. And senior Republicans said the Senate was certain to stay in session next week, ensuring that the annual slog over must-pass government spending would - like in previous years - go down to the wire.
Democrats pin the blame on the GOP for the delay. "We should have no vexatious, poison pill riders," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said. "We are not going to have a CR loaded with riders. One is too many, and that's what they're trying to do."
The Nevada Democrat took particular umbrage at the prospect of continuing a prohibition on the SEC from requiring public companies to disclose political spending. That provision was included in last year's omnibus spending bill, but Reid said he will fight to strip it out.
"We're not going to have this bill [be] a pin-cushion for McConnell's desire to have nothing, nothing reported dealing with campaign spending," Reid said.
Lawmakers also are clashing over the Obama administration's plan to relinquish the U.S. government's authority over the Internet domain system to an international body on Oct. 1. Republicans led by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune of South Dakota are pushing to continue a prohibition on the hand-over, which is sharply opposed by the administration.
"It's just trying to figure out how to structure it, how to do it, how to make it effective," Thune said of the internet domain issue, known as ICANN. "I think in some form, I think that issue has to be addressed."
Republicans said both the SEC language and the Internet battle are still under consideration as of late Tuesday. Cruz voted "no" on moving forward.
A GOP-backed push to block Transportation Department rules regarding how long truckers must rest in between drives is one of the other final issues to be determined. As of late Tuesday afternoon, however, it appeared as if the trucking issue was close to being resolved, according to one source familiar with the negotiations.
Congressional negotiators were also continuing to discuss offsets for Zika funding. And it looked increasingly likely that the continuing resolution will not include money to address the lead contamination crisis in Flint, Mich., or to respond to the devastating flooding in Louisiana.
"The Democrats are insisting upon Flint, and we've got members who are interested in some assistance for flooding in Louisiana," Thune said. "Maybe it ends up that neither gets addressed - I don't know."
Thune also suggested an administration effort to restore the Export-Import Bank's full financing authority was falling short. "I know that the Dems are very intent on changing that quorum threshold, but even if we could pass it through the Senate - and I don't know we can - that makes a very heavy lift in the House."
Jennifer Scholtes and Adam Behsudi contributed to this report.
House passes transportation bill ahead of pre-election recess Back
By Lauren Gardner | 09/20/2016 07:22 PM EDT
The House passed a non-controversial transportation bill tonight to allow retired air traffic controllers to retain certain retirement benefits, even if they go back to work to train the next generation of aviation traffic cops.
The chamber approved legislation (H.R. 5785), 399-4, permitting retired controllers to keep their federal retirement supplements if they choose to work as full-time ATC instructors. Those retirees are subject to a $15,720 annual income cap to receive their benefits.
Lawmakers also debated Monday a bill (H.R. 5625) formally allowing federal employees to be reimbursed for any work travel using ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, setting up a vote for later this week. The House Oversight Committee endorsed the bill last week.
McCaul proposes TSA overhaul in releasing terrorism strategy Back
By Jennifer Scholtes | 09/20/2016 03:31 PM EDT
House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul is calling for "sweeping reform at TSA," arguing that the nation's aviation security isn't good enough or quick enough.
"Terrorists still have their crosshairs set on transportation targets, especially aviation," the chairman says in the 35-page national strategy he released this afternoon on combating terrorism. "Unfortunately, the Transportation Security Administration has failed to provide the level of security and efficiency the flying public deserves."
McCaul says there need to be more serious consequences for TSA screening failures, that the agency needs to better integrate private-sector personnel and technologies, and TSA should improve its periodic vetting of employees to detect insider threats. He proposes reviewing organizations within TSA, specifically calling out the Federal Air Marshal Service "to ensure taxpayers are getting a right-sized, layered defense."
The chairman calls for the Department of Homeland Security to implement more stringent security requirements and reviews for airports that have direct flights to the United States, including demanding that those foreign hubs do better counterterrorism vetting of airport and airline workers. And he expresses support for the Obama administration's move this year to expand the Preclearance program run by Customs and Border Protection that enables U.S. customs officials to vet employees before they take off from foreign airports, rather than when they arrive in the United States.
In Bridgegate trial, Sokolich details pressure to endorse Christie Back
By Ryan Hutchins | 09/20/2016 05:20 PM EDT
NEWARK - Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich testified in U.S. District Court on Tuesday that an aide to Gov. Chris Christie repeatedly pressured him to endorse the Republican's re-election campaign, first telling him that other Democrats had done so before eventually asking directly for his support.
The request by Matt Mowers, a staffer in the governor's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, came in the weeks leading up to the George Washington Bridge lane closures - as did the mayor's refusal to do so, Sokolich said on Tuesday as he took the stand in the trial around the George Washington Bridge scandal.
The so-called Bridgegate incident, in which two lanes leading to the bridge were closed, caused days of gridlock in the Bergen County town and surrounding communities, allegedly succeeding in punishing Sokolich, which is what prosecutors say several Christie allies sought.
The alleged hostility followed years of cordial relations between Sokolich and the governor's office, which had worked hard to build friendships with Democratic politicians across the state.
For Sokolich, that meant some special attention - or what felt like it to him. He was invited to football games in the governor's box at Metlife Stadium and to holiday cocktail parties; he was twice granted VIP access to the World Trade Center construction site and Ground Zero; and he had a nearly-two-hour lunch with Christie and a few other mayors at the governor's mansion in Princeton, Sokolich testified Tuesday.
When he had cousins visiting from Croatia, Sokolich was given a short-notice tour of Ground Zero, escorted there by a high-ranking official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, he said. That same official, it would turn out, was the man who plotted the lane closures: David Wildstein, a childhood classmate of Christie.
"It was odd to me," Sokolich said of what Wildstein told him. "'So you're the guy we have to be nice to.' Said it several times. 'I've got to be nice to you, I'm told.' I remember because he said it multiple times within my initial minute of meeting him."
Wildstein has already pleaded guilty to his role in the bridge incident and will be the star witness for the U.S. Attorney's Office, which is prosecuting the case. He will testify against Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff. Both were indicted last May on charges of conspiracy, fraud and civil rights violations.
By fall of 2012, Sokolich's regular conversations with Mowers had started to turn toward Christie's 2013 reelection campaign. Over and over again, Sokolich said, Mowers would raise the names of other Democrats who had publicly supported Christie's bid for a second term. The township council in Teaneck had done it - maybe he'd think about it, too? Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo was in - maybe Sokolich, too?
"Mayor, what are your thoughts? Would you consider something like that?" Sokolich said Mowers would ask.
"It wasn't a comfortable place for me to be," said Sokolich, who had endorsed Christie policies but never the man himself. "I was at times supportive of the governor, though I am the Democratic mayor in a predominately Democratic town. And it wasn't something I felt I would, ultimately, be able to do. So I was uncomfortable with the conversations when we had them."
Even so, the mayor said the inquiries were gentle - never a "direct" question about whether he'd endorse or not. At least not until the summer of 2013, months before the election.
That's when the two met at a restaurant called In Napoli in Fort Lee and Mowers asked for a clear answer. Sokolich said he told him he couldn't do it, and went on at length about why, fearing he might upset the governor's office.
"I gave him multiple reasons, because I wanted to, as gently as possible, say 'no' to his request," Sokolich said.
He said he didn't want to anger the Democrats on the local City Council, didn't want to anger a political mentor who'd balked at the idea of backing Christie and he didn't want to upset Lou Stellato, the powerful chairman of the Democratic party in Bergen County.
"I did not want to alienate them," Sokolich said. "They're all Democratic party loyalists."
When September rolled around, and the first day of school on the 9th, the traffic jam started. The lane closures went on for days, coming with no waring and no explanation, Sokolich and his police chief, Keith Bendul, testified on Tuesday.
Cones were moved to reduce the city's three local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge to just one. The result was traffic that backed up for miles, snaking out onto side street after side street and well beyond the confines of their 2.5-square-mile town.
It was some of the most debilitating gridlock they had seen in Fort Lee, which plays hosts the world's busiest bridge.
"I would say it's the worst traffic we had to deal with outside of 9/11," said Bendul, who has been with the department for 27 years.
When they searched for answers, though, the men found none.
The chief made calls to all his contacts in the police department at the Port Authority, which controls the bridge the access lanes. Eventually the bridge's general manager, Robert Durando, agreed to meet him that morning at the municipal parking lot, nearby the Port Authority's building. Bendul said the man told him not to "come in the building or onto Port Authority property."
"I thought it was very weird," he said. "I thought it was cloak and dagger."
He told him he was worried about public safety, and didn't understand what was going on. "I told him bluntly that if anybody dies, I'm going to tell those people to sue him and everybody at the Port Authority," the chief testified.
Durando wouldn't give him a straight answer, and eventually told him to reach out to Baroni for answers about what was happening, Bendul said.
"He was very nervous. Seemed afraid," Bendul said. "He told me that if anybody asked if this meeting occurred that he would deny it."
When Sokolich went to Baroni, he got no response. The mayor said that was despite a good relationship with him that traced back to the beginning of his tenure at the Port, where he was the highest ranking New Jersey official.
He called and texted. He left multiple voicemails. No word from Baroni, the mayor said.
Prosecutors played two voicemails and showed some of the text messages to the jury. It wasn't long before the mayor thought someone was trying to punish him.
"We're in total gridlock," Sokolich said in one voicemail left for Baroni. "I'm just trying to figure out who's mad at me."
The mayor will take the witness stand again on Tuesday, followed by Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo who ended the lane closures when he learned of them.
Christie, who is currently a top adviser to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, has denied any knowledge or involvement in the lane-closing incident. But Wildstein's attorney says there is evidence to prove the governor knew about the plot when it was occurring, and prosecutors on Monday endorsed that theory, saying the governor was told of the traffic gridlock and the mayor's unanswered complaints on the third day of the lane closings.
The trial is expected to last six weeks. Both defendants plan to testify.
Brooklyn councilman calls for a 'freight-capable' Gateway, setting off a political spat Back
By Dana Rubinstein | 09/20/2016 07:23 PM EDT
If the feds and the states are going to spend billions of dollars to build a new, two-track tunnel under the Hudson River, they might as well make it accessible to both passenger and freight trains.
Or so goes an argument advanced by Councilman David Greenfield of Brooklyn, who, together with 12 other elected officials, has sent a letter to U.S. transportation secretary Anthony Foxx, Amtrak president Charles Moorman, and NJ Transit interim executive director Dennis Martin, arguing that the new Gateway tunnel should be "freight-capable."
At least one of the signatories has since removed his name from the letter, which was circulated to the press on Tuesday, saying he didn't understand when he signed it that the press release pitted one proposal (making Gateway "freight-capable") against another proposal, building a separate cross-harbor freight tunnel. The latter proposal is the pet project of U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler, who does not get along well with Greenfield.
"I signed it because I support any investment in infrastructure in the City of New York that will improve freight and make food less expensive, and I'm fairly agnostic as to whether that's the cross-Harbor or Gateway or any of the other projects that we are trying to get funded," said Councilman Ben Kallos, who confirmed he had removed his name from the letter. "But I do not support one project over the other."
Nadler has been advocating for a freight-specific tunnel beneath the harbor for decades. While Greenfield's letter does not take explicit aim at the Nadler project, the accompanying press release does.
"Unfortunately, some bureaucrats would rather waste billions of dollars for a dedicated freight tunnel that will likely never materialize," says Greenfield in his press release. "We need to add freight to this passenger tunnel so that we can save money and actually get it done."
In an ensuing interview, Greenfield said any dispute among signatories was due to a mere "misunderstanding."
"Maybe it's generational, but I think we have to go with the best public policy ideas and push those and not be worried about some folks saying, 'You stepped on my turf and I have an exclusive right to all transportation ideas,'" said Greenfield, in an apparent reference to Nadler. The congressman had no comment.
All that being said, some experts, though not all, support the substance of Greenfield's proposal.
Earlier this year, the Port Authority, in its study of cross-harbor freight alternatives, dismissed the notion of making a cross-Hudson tunnel to accommodate both passenger and freight, saying it would "result in minimal windows for freight, at best."
In May, however, the Regional Plan Association submitted testimony to the federal transportation department and NJ Transit arguing for much the same thing, since ultimately - after the new two-track tunnel comes online, and the old two-track one gets repaired - there will be four tracks running under the river, not just two.
The association further argues that an expanded Penn Station - another element of the Gateway program - should allow for through-running, rather than serve as a terminus for the new tracks. Freight trains could then run through Manhattan to Queens with a connection to, say, the lower Montauk Branch of the Long Island Rail Road.
"We don't believe we should be building a tunnel just for people and a tunnel just for freight," said Richard Barone, the association's vice president for transportation. "We think we should be building facilities that can do both. Money isn't infinite."
Greenfield and his compatriots agree.
"Trucks currently move more than 98% of freight in New York City. Our overreliance on truck traffic makes our air harder to breathe and our streets more difficult to navigate," they wrote in their letter. "It overburdens our infrastructure and challenges our businesses' ability to grow in place and create jobs locally. Now, with the first new Hudson River rail tunnel in more than a century visible on the horizon, we have never had a better occasion to fix an age old problem, one which has only worsened over time. "
None of the letter's recipients would comment for this article.
Wall Street Journal: Road for Driverless Cars Pockmarked With Regulatory Pitfalls
Companies from the Motor City to Silicon Valley welcomed the Obama administration’s new self-driving car policy this week, but there is still a long road ahead full of obstacles before robots entirely replace humans as motorists.
For auto makers and technology firms, the guidelines detailed Tuesday represent an early victory that steer clear of regulations with legal force and pressure states to avoid developing conflicting rules that could frustrate rollout efforts.
But the government’s unwillingness for now to aggressively draft firm, prescriptive rules shows how unprepared some regulators, urban planners and insurers are for an autonomous overhaul.
Questions remain about whether the federal government will ultimately need to unwind decades of safety regulations to accommodate for vehicles that don’t have steering wheels, brake pedals and other features designed for human interaction.
Assuming manufacturers can overcome all the technical challenges of building an autonomous car, the burgeoning field would change the fabric of everyday life in a way that hasn’t occurred since automobiles replaced horse carriages. Cities may need to revamp urban layouts such as roadway surfaces and traffic signals, while insurance companies and lawyers would have to grapple with where the blame lies when two self-driving cars crash.
“This is still a long timeline to go from where we are today,” said Jeremy Carlson, principal automotive analyst for IHS Markit, which forecasts several thousand autonomous vehicles being sold in 2020 in the U.S.
Companies such as Ford Motor Co., Uber Technologies Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google have signaled they expect fully autonomous cars to be ready within five years. Tesla Motors Inc. has shown how quickly technology can be incorporated, rolling out a Autopilot feature that can control the vehicle in limited situations and is seen as a major step toward self-driving.
Google, which helped ignite the public’s imagination for the technology having driven more than 1.5 million miles, has a vision for cars that doesn’t include traditional features like steering wheels, turn signals and foot-activated brakes.
That could pose issues with U.S. motor-vehicle safety standards, hundreds of pages of stringent rules that govern the design and construction of vehicles, as detailed as the dimensions of rearview mirrors.
A report released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in March that reviewed current standards found few regulatory hurdles for automated vehicles with traditional designs and that include a human driver, but said there were greater obstacles for cars designed to be controlled without human drivers.
“If manufacturers want to sell vehicles only intended for automated operation, with no way for human occupants to drive the vehicle, they are likely to have difficulty certifying to requirements” without having a steering wheel, driver’s seat, certain displays and brake pedals, the report said.
U.S. regulators can issue exemptions to those rules, but they last for up to two years for the development of new safety features, according to current government rules. Exemptions mean the rules “don’t stop anyone from what they want to do in the near term, but in the future, when this is ubiquitous, some change is going to be needed,” one industry tech official said.
Transportation Department officials said Tuesday they are weighing whether to amend rules to address conflicts with future driverless car designs.
For now, federal regulators have resisted developing new rules, concerned the yearslong process could render regulations moot amid the blistering pace of technological innovation. Instead, they are focused for now on cajoling companies to share information and alert regulators to designs and features to ensure they are ready for public roads.
The new policy does raise the possibility of the government seeking new legal authority, such as seeking to preapprove self-driving car technology, a major departure from how automobiles are currently regulated.
As the federal government and states try to untangle the issues, cities will also be confronted with change. Only about 6% of cities have considered the effect of driverless cars in their long-term planning, according to a survey last year by the National League of Cities, which says officials will need to determine whether to create separate lanes for self-driving cars and how to handle “acres of potentially unnecessary parking.”
Auto insurers are scrambling to figure out how autonomous vehicles will affect their businesses. KPMG actuaries, for example, estimated an 80% drop in the U.S. accident-frequency rate by 2040 in part because of the availability of fully self-driving cars. Among the questions lawyers are debating is who will be liable for crashes.
As the technology matures, manufacturers, safety advocates, state officials and federal regulators will all need to come together to adopt uniform policies.
The federal government’s suggestion that it wants to work closely with companies on the development of the technology drew some caution. Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA chief, urged regulators to develop firm rules to better protect consumers from possible glitches.
The agency “must not shy away from assuring public safety with minimum federal vehicle safety standards,” she said in a statement Tuesday, pointing to the failure of automatic emergency brakes in the May fatal crash of a Tesla.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune foresees the need for additional congressional oversight as driverless-car development surges, but adds lawmakers’ specific role for now remains unclear.
Wall Street Journal: Trucking Volumes Recovered in August
Trucks moved more freight in August, several industry measures showed, though not all fleets took part in the rebound.
The American Trucking Associations’ seasonally-adjusted truck tonnage index rose 5.7% in August from a month earlier to 141.8, just below a record set in February. The report follows DAT’s estimate last week of an 11% year-on-year increase in North American truck volumes in August.
The readings are a sign that freight demand may have bottomed out over the summer, after a months-long slump driven by high retail inventories and a weak manufacturing sector. While manufacturing activity remains uneven, inventories have begun to draw down due to lower import volumes and strong consumer spending.
“With moderate economic growth forecasted, truck freight will improve as progress is made with the inventory overhang,”said Bob Costello, the ATA’s chief economist.
Still, Mr. Costello said one positive month isn’t enough for trucking companies to assume the worst is over. He said he expects the freight business to remain volatile until excess inventories work through North American retail and manufacturing supply chains.
Data from Cass Information Systems, which measures both truck and rail activity, showed U.S. freight shipments in August rose only 0.4% from the prior month, but declined 1.1% from August 2015. Cass analysts also highlighted increased volatility amid persistent weakness in volume and pricing. Parcel and expedited shipping for e-commerce has grown, according to Cass, as freight transportation serving manufacturing and construction industries remains soft.
Last month’s strong volumes come after several large trucking firms had given bleak assessments for August and September. At a recent meeting with analysts, John Steele, chief financial officer at Werner Enterprises Inc., described recent volumes as “relatively stable” though “not yet what we would classify as strong.”
Werner has pulled back on capital spending and reduced its fleet size in the third quarter.
Old Dominion Freight Line Inc. reported a decline in less-than-truckload shipments in August, and in recent comments on the company’s performance Chief Executive Bruce Campbell said unadjusted year-over-year daily tonnage was down 4.6% in the third quarter.