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Infrastructure in the News 9.8.16


Wall Street Journal: U.S.’s Aging Oil-Reserve Infrastructure Needs an Update (full article follows Morning Transportation)

The U.S. government’s reserve stockpile of nearly 700 million barrels of oil is increasingly ineffective due to aging infrastructure and a booming domestic oil industry, according to an Energy Department report released Wednesday morning.

FutureStructure: Still Waiting for the Transportation Revolution

The future of transportation could very well be unrecognizable compared with today’s system: self-driving pods packed with carpoolers, electric motors, multi-modal journeys, invisible conversations between machines.

Mass Transit: Public Transportation Eyed for Improving Road Safety

It is ten times safer per mile to travel by public transportation than it is to travel by car according to a report that was recently released by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

The Hill: Safety advocates eye public transportation as way to reduce traffic deaths

With the number of traffic fatalities on the rise in the U.S., safety advocates are looking to public transportation as a way to improve commuter safety.

Washington Post: Once rivals and allies, Clinton, Schumer eye new partnership

The two already speak a few times a month on the presidential race and Senate landscape. They’re also eying an agenda for 2017 that includes a sweeping immigration overhaul, an infrastructure package and gun control legislation.

Wall Street Journal: Hanjin Shipping’s Troubles Leave $14 Billion in Cargo Stranded at Sea

The financial woes of one of the world’s biggest shipping lines have left as much as $14 billion worth of cargo stranded at sea, sending its owners scurrying to try to recover their goods and get them to customers, according to industry executives, brokers and cargo owners.

Washington Post: Americans are driving more again. That could be a problem.

Remember “Peak Car”? Vehicle miles traveled per capita hit an all-time high of just over 10,000 a year in 2004 — then declined for nine straight years, spawning a belief that the car-happy United States might have finally maxed out on driving. Baby boomers were retiring, millennials liked walkable cities, and more workers telecommuted.

Wall Street Journal: Honda Recalls 16 Car Models With Takata Air Bags

Honda Motor Co. is recalling 668,816 cars in Japan that contain air-bag inflaters made by Takata Corp., the latest in a string of recalls of rupture-prone air bags linked to deaths and injuries world-wide.

Reuters: U.S. Services Sector Activity Slows to Six-And-Half Year Low

U.S. services sector activity hit a 6-1/2 year-low in August amid sharp drops in production and orders, pointing to slowing economic growth that could further diminish prospects for an interest rate hike from the Federal Reserve this month.


Bloomberg Markets: De Blasio Ferry Plan Reaches Out to Gentrifying Brooklyn, Queens

This time next year, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio plans to be campaigning for re-election touting his creation of a ferry service linking Manhattan with a string of fast-growing communities across the East River.

WCAX (Vermont): Vt. to cut $2.8M from transportation fund amid slower revenues

Gov. Peter Shumlin has released a plan to cut $2.8 million from the transportation fund to address slower than expected revenue growth in Vermont.

WSIL (Illinois): Improvements to public transportation in Jackson County

Using public transportation in Jackson County has now become a little easier, thanks to new buses at the Jackson County Mass Transit District.

Miami Herald (Florida): Florida ranks high in quality infrastructure

A recent report from the national transportation research group TRIP lists Florida’s transportation infrastructure among the best — and safest — in the country.

Washington Post: Federal reports reveal concerns with quality of Metro’s SafeTrack repairs

Federal inspection reports for the first three Metro SafeTrack surges suggest that officials with the Federal Transit Administration are concerned that the work is not being performed as effectively as possible and that problems are being missed.

Associated Press: DelDOT: $2.4M in tolls collected over Labor Day weekend

The Delaware Department of Transportation says that over the Labor Day weekend, more than 888,000 vehicles passed through Delaware’s toll plaza locations.

Associated Press: Michigan moves to not require human in driverless test cars

Michigan would no longer require that someone be inside a self-driving car while testing it on public roads under legislation passed unanimously Wednesday by the state Senate, where backers touted the measures as necessary to keep the U.S. auto industry's home state ahead of the curve on rapidly advancing technology.

Washington Post: Metro unveils options for cutting late-night service. You probably won’t like them.

It’s been two months since Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld first floated his proposal to permanently cut late-night service and give Metro track workers more time to perform repairs.

By Brianna Gurciullo | 09/08/2016 05:38 AM EDT

With help from Jennifer Scholtes, Lauren Gardner, Tanya Snyder and Annie Snider

TSA BOSS HITS UP THE HILL: Lawmakers say TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger is set for a field trip to the Capitol today for individual sit-downs with members. House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul told us that he and Rep. John Katko will chat with the TSA head today. And ranking member Bennie Thompson said he, too, will catch up with Neffenger, and the administrator's deputy, Huban Gowadia.

Topics of conversation: For the GOP lawmakers, security for flights to and from Cuba is sure to come up since they are still miffed that the Obama administration opened up commercial air service to the island in the absence, they say, of adequate security protocol at the corresponding Cuban hubs. And then, of course, there will no doubt be talks today about how to keep TSA lines short.

More money? In recent days, Obama administration officials have been warning that this spring's lengthy security screening lines may be gone, but not for long - if lawmakers don't commit to more funding over the long haul. Besides the White House's request for elevated TSA appropriations in any continuing resolution Congress moves to enact this month, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told reporters Wednesday that a long-term funding boost is essential to keeping TSA operations running smoothly, as our Jennifer Scholtes reported for Pros.

Zipped lips: Since congressional leaders have yet to decide on their exact path for funding the federal government beyond this month, the key players are keeping quiet about whether they plan to make an exception for TSA if they move a continuing resolution. Rep. John Carter, who heads the House subcommittee in charge of TSA funding, told us this week that he's "not ready to talk about that yet." But Johnson says appropriators from both sides of the aisle understand the need to keep up increased investment in TSA resources.

Instant feedback: "When we have issues like longer wait times, the public is going to see that, feel that immediately," Johnson said Wednesday. "I expect their representatives in Congress will hear from them, like they did this summer, and will be responsive to aviation security and to keeping passengers safe, and keeping them moving through the airports. And I think, certainly, the appropriators I've talked to and I've dealt with fully understand that, on both sides of the aisle."

IT'S ALREADY THURSDAY! Good morning and thanks for tuning in to POLITICO's Morning Transportation, your daily tipsheet on all things trains, planes, automobiles and ports. Don't forget to send tips, feedback and, of course, song lyrics to or @brigurciullo.

"We could fly to New York/I could show you that place/Cut shapes from the winter's/Most delicate lace." (h/t Greg Rogers at the Eno Center for Transportation)

Want to keep up with all of MT's song picks? Follow our Spotify playlist: (And thanks to Greg for the idea!)

PRIVATE SECTOR AND AMTRAK FACE OFF: As FRA looks to create a program intended to save the government some money on passenger rail service, private companies say they're concerned that Amtrak wants the power to block their future attempts to run services on some long-distance Amtrak routes. "Obviously, it wasn't the intent of Congress to give Amtrak the ability to veto privatizing long-distance train routes," Ed Ellis, president of Iowa Pacific Holdings, said at an FRA hearing Wednesday. But an Amtrak official at the hearing shot down that complaint, our Lauren Gardner reports for Pros.

Waiting on the deets: Under the pilot program, third-party operators would be able to manage a maximum of three long-distance services over four or eight years. Both Amtrak and private businesses want FRA to spell out how regulators will decide on operating subsidies, and the agency also has to handle concerns about how the experimental program would apply federal labor laws.

THUNE: WE'RE PRETTY MUCH DONE WITH TRANSPORTATION FOR THE YEAR: Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune says his panel has checked off most items on its transportation to-do list for 2016. "We've got stuff in the telecom area we'd like to get across the finish line before the end of the year, but most of the transportation issues have been handled in some fashion," Thune told MT on Wednesday, listing off highways, pipelines, rail and aviation. But he added that trucking issues could still come up: "You know a lot of things have been brought up from groups that I talk to in the stakeholder community that they're really concerned about that are going to impact the economy. Trucking, for example," he said.

LIFE IN THE FASTLANE: Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced Wednesday the entire list of FASTLANE grant winners receiving a total of $759 million in funding for projects to improve freight capacity in 15 states and D.C. The winners include the Atlantic Gateway project in Virginia and the Massachusetts Port Authority's project to expand the Conley Container Terminal, our Tanya Snyder reports for Pros.

BUOYS ARE HERE TO STAY: Even as its emphasis shifts to electronic navigation, a U.S. Coast Guard official assured lawmakers Wednesday that GPS won't replace buoys and beacons. Rear Adm. Paul Thomas told members of two House Transportation subcommittees at a joint hearing that "the Coast Guard aims to modernize even the physical aids, for example by replacing large steel buoys in the Great Lakes with ice-resistant plastic ones that won't need to be removed for the winter and re-positioned in the spring," Tanya reports for Pros. Still, USCG recently required more vessels to carry electronic aids to navigation. And Rep. Peter DeFazio expressed concerns Wednesday about possible cyberattacks on such systems.

** A message from Airlines for America: Every day, U.S. airlines connect 2.2 million people to what matters most. Whether it's a family vacation or an important business trip, the 675,000 U.S. airline employees proudly operate 27,000 flights a day, including the most important one-yours. Airlines for America: We Connect the World. Learn more at **

WRDA WINS FLOOR TIME: The Senate officially brought its WRDA bill to the floor Wednesday night, after several days of internal wrangling among Democrats over whether the measure - which includes aid to lead-contaminated Flint, Mich., and other communities - merited precious floor time in a short legislative session. The upper chamber has just a few weeks to approve a federal spending bill and find a way to provide Zika aid. Reid relented last night, and Republicans, who had major concerns around the Flint package last spring, did not object either.

Champagne popping: Floor debate may just be starting, but Environment and Public Works Committee aides are already celebrating, our friends at Morning Energy report. Aides saw proceeding to the bill as the biggest hurdle, and now they are confident the popular bill has enough votes behind it to overcome any obstacles. EPW Chairman Jim Inhofe and ranking member Barbara Boxer have been urging their colleagues to avoid controversial issues like regional water disputes or the Waters of the U.S. rule. "I don't think they're going to choose this bill for their wars," Inhofe told ME this week.

Democrats have at least seven amendments they want considered, and many more could come by the noon Friday deadline set by Boxer and Inhofe. Meanwhile, the bipartisan duo is working up a manager's package.

But not everyone is whistling a happy tune: Heritage Action on Wednesday urged senators to oppose the WRDA bill, arguing it contains too few reforms and "would create new federal programs that increase bureaucracy and further entrench federal involvement in local programs." The criticism could hold sway among fiscal conservatives in the House, whose WRDA bill is a much narrower measure.

FATAL TESLA CRASH IN THE NETHERLANDS: A man driving a Tesla died Wednesday after he crashed into a tree on a highway in the Netherlands. Tesla told Reuters that it's "working with the authorities to establish the facts of the incident." Whether the driver had been using the company's Autopilot feature was unknown. The Tesla's battery reportedly broke and a part of it caught on fire. Firefighters worried they might be electrocuted and it took several hours to pull the man's body out of the car.

FEDS INVESTIGATING COLLISION OF TWO SMALL PLANES: The FAA and NTSB are investigating the collision of two small planes Wednesday in Georgia that left three people dead. Carroll County's fire chief told The Associated Press that a pilot said the two planes seemed to try to land at the same time near the end of West Georgia Regional Airport's runway. The victims included a flight instructor, her male student and another man.

MT MAILBAG: Four dozen groups representing freight rail customers sent a letter to the chairmen and ranking members of the House Transportation and Senate Commerce committees Wednesday voicing their support for STB's proposed rule on competitive switching. Members of the so-called Rail Customer Coalition plan to descend on the Hill in the coming weeks. In their letter, the groups write: "The notion that an improved competitive environment will damage the fundamental economics of the U.S. freight rail system is simply unfounded and runs counter to basic free market principles." The coalition also wants STB "to move forward quickly with a viable alternative to the overly time-consuming and expensive 'Stand Alone Cost' rate case process and other essential reforms."

REPORT OF THE DAY: The American Public Transportation Association is out with a new report on how public transit can improve safety. Over 35,000 people died in traffic crashes in 2015, according to DOT , the largest single-year increase in almost 50 years. APTA CEO Richard White said during a press call Wednesday that people reduce their risk of being in an accident by more that 90 percent when they take public transportation as an alternative to driving. White advocated for the expansion of public transit and pointed to a nationwide "state of good repair" backlog. During the call, NTSB Vice Chairwoman Bella Dinh-Zarr also emphasized that public transportation takes distracted, drowsy and fatigued drivers off the road.

SHIFTING GEARS: The National Automobile Dealers Association has hired Abram Olmstead as digital media director, our friends at POLITICO Influence report. Olmstead comes from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where he served as senior manager of digital strategic communications.


- Washington Metro unveils options for cutting late-night service. You probably won't like them. The Washington Post.

- In a break for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, court denies media request for Bridgegate conspirator list. POLITICO New Jersey.

- Hanjin Shipping's troubles leave $14 billion in cargo stranded at sea. The Wall Street Journal.

- Michigan moves to not require human in driverless test cars. The Associated Press.

- Federal reports reveal concerns with quality of Washington Metro's SafeTrack repairs. The Washington Post.

- Daimler to work with Matternet to develop delivery van drones. The Wall Street Journal.

- Investigator: No immediate clues in Florida helicopter crash. The Associated Press.

THE COUNTDOWN: DOT appropriations run out in 21 days. The FAA reauthorization expires in 386 days. The 2016 presidential election is in 60 days. Highway and transit policy is up for renewal in 1,486 days.


8 a.m. - The Atlantic hosts a discussion on homeland security changes since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks with Homeland SecuritySecretary Jeh Johnson and former Secretary Tom Ridge as well as House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul. The Pavilion at the Ronald Reagan Building.

9 a.m. - The RTCA Special Committee on Rechargeable Lithium Batteries and Battery Systems holds its 25th meeting.

12 p.m. - Volpe holds a talk with Jeff Risom, managing director of Gehl Studio, titled"Making Cities for and with People." 55 Broadway, Kendall Square, Cambridge, Mass. Register to join the webinar:

3 p.m. - FHWA, Volpe, and MIT present findings from a study on ridesharing technology on college campuses during a webinar.

Did we miss an event? Let MT know at

** A message from Airlines for America: By transporting 2.2 million passengers and 49,000 tons of cargo every single day, the U.S. airlines make the world a little smaller-and that means big opportunity. The U.S. airlines employ 675,000 skilled workers. For every 100 of those workers, the industry supports an additional 473 non-airline jobs. In total, the U.S. airlines drive 5 percent of our entire gross domestic product and act as a crucial pillar of the American economy. Air travel is the safest form of inter-city transportation, and it's also a comprehensive network of people, goods, and ideas. So whether you're expanding your business or your horizons by visiting one of our 800 destinations, the U.S. airlines make it possible with 27,000 flights a day. Airlines for America: We Connect the World. Learn more at **

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Stories from POLITICO Pro

Jeh Johnson: TSA needs long-term cash to keep lines short Back

By Jennifer Scholtes | 09/07/2016 04:05 PM EDT

Even as it celebrated the defeat of long airport lines this summer, the Obama administration pleaded Wednesday for extra cash from Congress, contending that snaking security queues were not a one-time problem that a temporary cash infusion can overcome.

Without continuous investment to keep the TSA fully staffed, travelers will be unhappy and lawmakers will hear about it, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told reporters.

"This has to be a longer-term investment by our Congress in their appropriations. And I think Congress, on a bipartisan basis, understands that," Johnson said during a news conference at Ronald Reagan National Airport. "This can't be a year-to-year assessment of what's happening in airports in the United States."

The news conference came a week after the White House began circulating a budget document asking congressional appropriators to consider elevated funding levels for the TSA's staff. Lawmakers are expected to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government beyond the Oct. 1 start of the next fiscal year.

The Obama administration contends that the TSA won't have enough resources if lawmakers keep the agency at base levels. They noted that lawmakers allowed the agency to shift $62 million this summer to increase its workforce and shrink hours-long screening lines at the nation's busiest airports, but that was just a temporary fix.

Spending committee leaders from both sides of the aisle have been generally open to requests this year for additional TSA funding, largely agreeing that the agency's 96-percent failure rate in covert security tests had stemmed from an over-reliance on screening technology and "risk-based" traveler vetting. Scaling back those strategies - and thus returning to a more labor-intensive screening process amid historic traveler flows - is believed to have caused lines to grow so long at major hubs this year.

The Government Accountability Office, which performed those covert tests, came out with a new report this week urging the TSA to better track whether its workforce is heeding the lessons from those secret assessments.

Although Congress is almost certain to enact a continuing resolution this month, rather than full-year spending legislation, appropriators in both chambers have proposed fiscal 2017 funding levels that would give TSA $73 million more than the fiscal 2016 budget for passenger and baggage screening.

Top TSA officials don't see a larger cadre of screeners as the only way to keep commercial airliners safe and airport lines short. The administration has struck deals this year with Delta, American and United for the airlines to buy automated screening equipment and donate it to the federal government.

The TSA has said that technology, already used at airports like Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, speeds checkpoint wait times by 30 to 40 percent. The equipment automatically scans carry-on bags for prohibited items, uses radio frequency identification to ensure the containers are accounted for, photographs the outside of luggage to link X-ray images to each bag's contents and diverts items that need further screening so the bins behind them aren't held up.

The agency aims to have the technology installed in as many as 60 airports by year's end and as many as 100 within the next 12 months.

Airlines and airports have also helped the TSA beat back the long lines by freeing up about 600 workers this year to help with non-security-related tasks at checkpoints, like returning baggage bins to the front of the screening lanes. But administration officials aren't counting on that kind of assistance to last forever.

"The airlines stepped up and helped us out. Frankly, I'm not sure that I would expect that on a permanent basis," Johnson said this week. "We've got to continue to build back the TSA workforce."

The department has brought on more than 1,300 new transportation security officers this year and transitioned hundreds of others from part-time to full-time screener positions. The TSA created a national command center in May to help redistribute resources to the busiest airports and is signing up as many as 12,000 people each day for the PreCheck expedited screening program.

Johnson touted the fact that most travelers are waiting less than 15 minutes in TSA lines, and most passengers with PreCheck status are waiting less than five minutes.


Private railroads, Amtrak spar over FRA pilot program rule Back

By Lauren Gardner | 09/07/2016 06:15 PM EDT

A pilot program to give private companies the chance to take over passenger train service on some long-distance routes from Amtrak is stoking tension among those businesses and the government-backed corporation as federal regulators craft the rules for the experiment.

Private rail companies told FRA at a hearing on Wednesday at DOT headquarters that they were concerned Amtrak is pushing for "veto" power over future attempts by them to run long-distance service under the program, which Congress created under the FAST Act. The goal is to give third-party operators an opportunity to run up to three long-distance services over a four- or eight-year period at a lower cost to the federal government, which routinely funnels about $1 billion a year to Amtrak for those routes.

Ed Ellis, president of Iowa Pacific Holdings, said Amtrak presented in its written comments on FRA's proposed rule to implement the program "more than one Trojan horse" that would permit the national railroad to block it outright. He pointed to one Amtrak proposal that third-party operators include in their initial petitions their own access agreements with railroads that own the infrastructure along the routes, noting that Amtrak owns or controls infrastructure at points along most of the 15 long-distance routes.

"Obviously, it wasn't the intent of Congress to give Amtrak the ability to veto privatizing long-distance train routes," Ellis said.

Richard Slattery, Amtrak's senior research director, dismissed that argument, saying the railroad acknowledged in its comments that it doesn't consider itself a host railroad that is providing access to bidders that are seeking access agreements. Private companies should include those deals along with their applications so that Amtrak and FRA don't waste resources evaluating petitions that have little chance of moving forward because they lack the necessary blessings of other railroads, he said.

Slattery defended Amtrak's past work with states who wish to contract with private companies to provide rail services - and he dinged Iowa Pacific for an 11 percent drop in ridership since the company took over providing equipment, maintenance and food service for Indiana's Hoosier State route.

"Operating intercity passenger trains in the United States is a very challenging business," he said. "Although Amtrak constantly strives for improvements, we do not believe that anyone is better at it than we are."

Amtrak advocates and private sector representatives alike urged FRA to clearly define how exactly regulators will determine the operating subsidy winning bidders will receive. Amtrak wants to exclude costs like depreciation and interest from FRA's calculations, whereas companies like Iowa Pacific say taking those items out of the equation limits the attractiveness of the deal.

FRA also faces concerns about how the pilot program would apply federal labor laws for railroad employees. Labor groups reiterated their skepticism that the program would lead to better service than what Amtrak already provides.

"The idea that a private entity can just come in and provide more efficient and economical service than Amtrak simply because it is a private entity is a myth that we simply reject," said Larry Willis, secretary-treasurer at the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO.


Foxx announces $759 million in FASTLANE grants Back

By Tanya Snyder | 09/07/2016 04:01 PM EDT

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx today officially unveiled $759 million in FASTLANE grants to fund improvements in freight transportation capacity in 15 states and the District of Columbia.

The grants were publicized locally two months ago when members of Congress found out about their districts' winning applications, but today was the first time Foxx has been able to announce the full slate of winners.

Winners include the Atlantic Gateway project in Virginia, which Gov. Terry McAuliffe has called "the most comprehensive transportation package in Virginia history." Among a host of other improvements for highways and both passenger and freight rail, the project will rebuild the aging Long Bridge across the Potomac River, used for freight, commuter and inter-city rail.

The Massachusetts Port Authority received a $42 million grant to expand the Conley Container Terminal to allow Boston to compete with other East Coast ports in attracting the larger ships arriving from the newly expanded Panama Canal.

FASTLANE grants are now under the umbrella of the new Build America bureau, which DOT launched in July as a "one-stop shop" for innovative infrastructure financing.

The FAST Act provides $4.5 billion for FASTLANE grants over five years, but Foxx was careful to note that that amount "is not going to meet the entire infrastructure deficit this country has."

The FAST Act has been noted for its emphasis on freight, which until now foundered without a cohesive federal policy.


Coast Guard: 'Virtual buoys' won't replace real ones Back

By Tanya Snyder | 09/07/2016 03:23 PM EDT

U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Paul Thomas assured a congressional panel today that GPS navigation won't take the place of physical navigation aids like buoys and beacons.

"We have not removed a single physical aid to navigation (ATON)," Thomas told lawmakers at a joint hearing of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation and Water Resources and Environment panels. "In fact, we are augmenting our physical systems."

Maintenance of over 27,000 physical ATON is expensive, and the Coast Guard currently relies on an aging fleet of buoy tenders. USCG is looking to cut costs, and has proposed removing some physical buoys.

Thomas said the Coast Guard aims to modernize even the physical aids, for example by replacing large steel buoys in the Great Lakes with ice-resistant plastic ones that won't need to be removed for the winter and re-positioned in the spring.

But the emphasis is shifting to electronic navigation. In March, the Coast Guard dramatically increased the number of vessels required to carry electronic ATON.

Lawmakers expressed concern that maritime GPS systems could be susceptible to cyberattack. House T&I Ranking Democrat Peter DeFazio said he fears an over-reliance on electronic navigation could present "yet another vulnerability."

The Department of Homeland Security and Coast Guard are exploring options for a complementary navigation system that could run alongside GPS and act as a backup in case of a GPS outage. It could be a modernized version of the old Loran radio system that existed before digital navigation.

Military officials have called GPS "a single point of failure" for U.S. navigation.


Traffic deaths rise sharply after multi-year decline Back

By Jennifer Scholtes | 08/29/2016 03:26 PM EDT

Final 2015 data released today shows the highest increase in U.S. traffic fatalities in nearly five decades - an uptick that comes after several years of steady declines in the number of roadway deaths.

The Department of Transportation announced this afternoon that more than 35,000 people died in traffic crashes last year, a 7.2 percent increase from 2014. The United States hasn't experienced such a drastic single-year increase since 1966, when traffic deaths increased 8.1 percent from the previous year.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration notes that rising employment and low fuel prices were boosting driving in the U.S., which saw a 3.5 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled in 2015.

"Despite decades of safety improvements, far too many people are killed on our nation's roads every year," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a written statement. "Solving this problem will take teamwork, so we're issuing a call to action and asking researchers, safety experts, data scientists, and the public to analyze the fatality data and help find ways to prevent these tragedies."

The Obama administration has gotten several companies and educational institutions to agree to answer questions that could help DOT drive down the number of traffic deaths. The department will be looking to companies like mobile mapping application Waze, for example, to give insight on how to use studies and attitudes toward speeding, distracted driving and seat belts to develop marketing strategies to change driving behavior.


In a break for Christie, court denies media request for Bridgegate conspirator list Back

By Ryan Hutchins | 09/07/2016 12:16 PM EDT

A federal appeals court on Wednesday denied the media access to a list of unindicted co-conspirators in the George Washington Bridge lane-closure case, saying it was not in the public interest to release such information before a high-profile trial begins in less than two weeks.

"Public access to judicial documents and court proceedings is a respected tradition and important legal principle, but it has bounds," Judge Kent Jordan wrote in the decision, issued by a three-judge panel sitting on Third Circuit Courts of Appeals in Philadelphia. "That is so even in a case affected by heightened public interest. The time may come, perhaps at trial, when the information in the Conspirator Letter ought to be made public, but that time is not here yet."

For months, a coalition of news organizations, including POLITICO, has been pursuing the so-called "conspirator letter," in which federal prosecutors name the people they believe played a role in the conspiracy to cause a traffic jam for political reasons but, for one reason or another, escaped without facing criminal charges.

The release of the list could have proved damaging for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose own national political ambitions all but came to an end after it was revealed that some of his closest allies worked together to close lanes leading to the world's busiest bridge in an act of political retribution against a local Democratic mayor. Christie is now a top adviser to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

In May, U.S. District Court Judge Susan D. Wigenton, who will preside over the trial, ordered the government to release the list. Just hours before the document was to be handed over to reporters, lawyers for a conspirator calling himself "John Doe" intervened in the case and won a stay. In June, his attorney argued before the appeals court judges that the disclosure would unfairly tarnish the man's reputation, forever branding him as a "felon" even though he was never charged in the lane closure incident.

The arguments were bolstered by those of U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, who personally appeared in court to argue against disclosing the list and later told reporters he thought the debate offered "an important policy issue for the way the United States Department of Justice and my office does business - the way we handle our jobs."

In the end, the appeals court decided the list doesn't meet the threshold for disclosure because it is not a "bill of particulars," or an extension of the original indictment in the case. In other words, it's just part of the routine discovery process and not something the public would ordinarily have access to before trial.

Even if the letter had met that definition, Jordan wrote, the court would not have ordered its release because it also fails to pass another test: Whether "public access plays a meaningfully positive role." It does not overcome any "shortcomings in the indictment" and, at this point, it has no "evidentiary significance."

"The government rightly acknowledges that there may come a point when the information in the Letter becomes important, but it is speculative to say it ever will, and a chance of significance is not the same as significance," Jordan wrote. "'Information wants to be free' is, in some quarters, a popular slogan, but there are dangers to the administration of justice in too freely granting access to information of the sort at issue here."

Bruce Rosen, an attorney representing the media organizations, said he was not happy with the ruling and believes the court got it wrong. While he didn't rule out a further challenge to the decision, he said it may now be pointless.

"We are of course disappointed with the Third Circuit's decision," Rosen, of the firm McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen & Carvelli, said in an email. "We continue to believe that the public is entitled to the list of unindicted coconspirators under the First Amendment. At this point we are still reviewing decision. Appeal would be difficult in view of the time frame and some or all of these names may be released at trial."

While the closely guarded letter is not believed to include any bombshell revelations, its release would have further embarrassed Christie. Another list also exists, containing the names of people whom prosecutors believe may have known about the conspiracy but did not directly participate. Many believe the governor's name appears on that list, and the governor's star witness - David Wildstein, who has already pleaded guilty to playing a role - insists there is evidence to prove Christie knew.

Just last month, in pre-trial motions in the case, Fishman argued that photographs of Christie and Bridgegate defendant Bill Baroni, taken on the third day of the lane closures, are key evidence in the government's case. Fishman's justification as to their relevance was redacted.

The photographs were taken at a Sept. 11 memorial event in New York City and show Christie engaged in conversations with Baroni, the former deputy executive of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Wildstein, who worked under Baroni.

The photographs of the three men have long been the subject of public intrigue, placing the chief mastermind of the lane closure in the same place as the governor while the incident was occurring. Christie has insisted he had nothing to do with the incident and did not know about it before it happened.

Baroni and his co-defendant, Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, were indicted last May on charges of conspiracy, fraud and civil rights violations.

They are accused of closing local access lanes to the bridge to punish the Fort Lee mayor for not backing Christie, who was running for re-election and hoped to win by a record margin to build a case for the White House. The bridge is located in Fort Lee, and the lane closures caused days of gridlock in the Bergen County town and surrounding communities.

Christie has said this year that he is "highly doubtful" his name is on the list of unindicted co-conspirators, and has called the Bridgegate scandal "old news."

Even so, he could be called by defense attorneys to testify at the trial. He told reporters on Tuesday that he had not been asked or ordered to appear at the trial, which will be held in federal court in Newark.

Christie said the trial "will not affect what I do day to day," and it won't overshadow what he does for the Trump campaign. Christie is the head of the Republican's presidential transition team and is considered a possible pick for attorney general or White House chief of staff.

"The public really doesn't care," Christie said Tuesday. "Whatever the proceeding produces it will produce. It's been going on for three years now."

Jury selections begins on Thursday and opening arguments are set for Sept. 19.

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U.S.’s Aging Oil-Reserve Infrastructure Needs an Update

The U.S. government’s reserve stockpile of nearly 700 million barrels of oil is increasingly ineffective due to aging infrastructure and a booming domestic oil industry, according to an Energy Department report released Wednesday morning.

The government stores the oil stockpile, known as the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, or SPR, in 60 underground caverns in Texas and Louisiana. The Energy Department says most of the complex’s infrastructure is getting too old to function efficiently and it needs money from Congress to fix it.

The Obama administration is releasing the report a few weeks before Congress is expected to pass an appropriations, or spending, bill to fund the government through fiscal year 2017, which begins Oct. 1. The Energy Department is seeking $375.4 million to address many of the issues raised in the report.

A budget bill Congress passed last year authorized the energy secretary to draw down and sell up to $2 billion of crude oil from the reserve during fiscal years 2017 through 2020 to update much of the complex’s infrastructure, but the department still needs Congress to actually appropriate the money.

“Most of the critical infrastructure for moving crude within the SPR has exceeded its serviceable life, increasing maintenance costs and decreasing system reliability,” the report says.

The report also highlights an ongoing debate about whether a large strategic reserve, intended as a hedge against a crisis or shortage, is still needed, given the recent boom in domestic oil production.

The report suggests the optimal size for the reserve would be 530 million to 600 million barrels, or up to a month’s worth of daily oil consumption. The U.S. consumes almost 20 million barrels of day of petroleum products, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The stockpile currently has 695 million barrels of oil.

The government created the reserve after the 1973 oil embargo by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, which sent global oil prices skyrocketing, along with U.S. gasoline prices. The purpose of the reserve is to safeguard the U.S. against emergency supply disruptions like the OPEC embargo.

Wednesday’s report notes that the boom in domestic drilling—oil production nearly doubled between 2008 and 2015—has created what it calls a “major” logistical problem.

Pipelines servicing the Gulf Coast, where the salt caverns are, are flowing south toward the coast to accommodate the increased oil production, instead of north, the direction oil from the reserve would need to go.

The reserve is designed to release oil at a rate of 4.4 million barrels a day, but its current capacity could fall short of that level by more than two million barrels a day, the report said.

Due in part to increased domestic oil production, lawmakers have begun to see the oil reserve as a piggy bank. Congress twice authorized sales of oil from the strategic reserves to help fund the government last year, which marks a departure from a decades-old view that the reserve should be used for emergency and strategic uses only.

Congress mandated that a total of 58 million barrels be sold between fiscal years 2018 and 2025, with the proceeds deposited into the general fund of the U.S. Treasury. Separately, a transportation bill signed into law last year authorizes the sale of up to 66 million barrels between fiscal years 2023 and 2025, with the funds also going into Treasury’s general funds.

Congress authorized sales from the stockpile in 1996 and 1997 to pay for deficit reduction, the only other occasions when it was tapped for reasons other than the reserve’s stated purpose.

The government has indeed released oil from the reserves several times over the last few decades for emergency reasons, including after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when a number of oil operations were hit by the storm, and in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, a release that was coordinated with the International Energy Agency.

The oil in the reserve was purchased at a rolling average price of $29.70 a barrel, not adjusted for inflation, according to the Energy Department. Oil prices have dropped roughly in half in recent years, settling Tuesday at $44.83 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The Energy Department expects the U.S. oil price to average about $52 a barrel next year.