Transportation News for February 4, 2015

  • by BPC Staff
  • on February 4, 2015

Politico Morning Transportation for 2/4/2015: Six dead in Metro-North accident — Blumenauer bringing back gas tax bill — Boxer rankles Democratic feathers with new EPW post – Travel groups revolt over Open Skies

By Heather Caygle, with help from Kevin Robillard and Kathryn A. Wolfe

SIX KILLED IN METRO-NORTH COLLISION: At least six people were killed and a dozen injured Tuesday night after a Metro-North train collided with a Jeep in the deadliest accident in the railroad’s history. The NTSB is deploying a team to Westchester County this morning to investigate the crash, which New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney described as “horrific.” Metro-North originally said seven people had been killed in the accident but revised that number to six fatalities Wednesday morning.

Too early to tell: This latest crash comes after a 10-month period from 2013 to 2014 in which six people were killed and 126 injured during a string of Metro-North accidents ( ), including the December 2013 Bronx derailment that killed four people. But, it’s too early to say whether the latest accident “was avoidable, or a tragedy that just happened to occur at the same time Metro-North is making safety improvements. Under withering federal oversight and intense political pressure, the railroad has reported on the steps it’s taken,” reports Capital Pro’s Dana Rubinstein. Read more:

And more from the Wall Street Journal: “‘You have seven people who started out today to go about their business and aren’t going to be making it home tonight,’ Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday night. …’This appears to have been the driver’s fault,’ said Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive, referring to the person who was driving the SUV.” Full story:

BLUMENAUER BACK IN BUSINESS: Rep. Earl Blumenauer is reintroducing his gas tax bill today and once again, he’s got a broad coalition of transportation groups standing beside him but no Republican co-sponsors. Blumenauer’s bill would hike the gas tax 5 cents per year for the next three years, nearly doubling the tax by 2018. The Oregon lawmaker is also proposing to increase the diesel tax at the same rate for three years and then tie both taxes to inflation.

The absence of Republicans isn’t worrying the Oregonian just yet: “We’re not trying to put anybody on the spot. … I think it’s important to respect the process people are going through and let them come to it themselves. … This is hard for people. It’s something that’s not an easy, reflexive effort,” he said. Blumenauer does have some support though – so far 22 Democratic co-sponsors have signed onto the bill.

Legislative long shot: It’s no secret to MT readers that any kind of gas tax hike is a legislative longshot to say the least, especially since top Republicans have outright dismissed the idea in recent weeks. But Blumenauer isn’t giving up hope, saying he also wouldn’t mind if a gas tax hike was paired with an income tax cut or other measures, an idea that’s being shopped around on the Senate side and might be more politically palatable: “I don’t care if it’s part of a broader strategy,” he said, as long as a package creates enough sustainable revenue. “If it’s wrapped in with something else and people have their own optics, that doesn’t bother me.”

BOXER TAKING DEM SPOT ON T&I PANEL: EPW ranking member Barbara Boxer has decided to take the top Dem spot on the committee’s transportation panel, rankling some Democratic feathers along the way. “I have decided to do what Sen. [Max] Baucus did when he was ranking member and take the transportation subcommittee on EPW, because it is such an important priority for me,” Boxer said in a statement to MT. “I am very excited about getting a highway bill done.”

Democratic discord: Her decision exposed a fissure within Democratic ranks: behind-the-scenes bickering and hurt feelings over leadership positions. Although never officially announced, Sen. Tom Carper served as transportation subcommittee chairman in the last Congress and was expected to be named the panel’s ranking member before Boxer’s announcement.

What else is holding things up? Democratic indecision is also holding up the roster for the Senate Commerce Committee, sources said, because Sen. Ed Markey is angling for a ranking member spot on an EPW subcommittee although he is last in terms of seniority on the minority side. If Markey were to land an EPW ranking member slot, that could open up a subcommittee ranking member position on the Commerce Committee.

NO SPECIFIC TIMELINE FOR GROW 2.0: Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the new version of the administration’s surface transportation bill should be coming soon, but he refused to lay out an exact timetable for the bill. On a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Foxx said the new version “will be disseminated in the very near future.”

New and notable: Foxx said there may be more provisions in the bill related to efforts to crack down on auto safety defects, and pointed to the fiscal 2016 budget released Monday, which he said calls for an additional $31 million for NHTSA’s defects investigations office that will be used in part to hire 57 new employees. “The scope of challenges and expertise needed to keep our vehicles safe is growing rapidly. And it’s no longer reasonable, frankly, to expect an office with 8 screeners and 16 defects investigators to adequately analyze 75,000 complaints a year,” he said.

Prospects for a long-term bill: “As I talk to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, I am even more confident today than I was even a year ago that folks want to get to yes on this. We just have to continue working at it and hopefully we’ll get there,” he said.

WELCOME TO THE MIDWEEK MAYHEM. Good morning and thanks for reading POLITICO’s Morning Transportation, your daily tipsheet on trains, planes, automobiles and ports. I’m Heather, your MT host, and you can find me dancing on the edge of my seat after news broke that Harper Lee is publishing a sequel to my favorite book – “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Maybe Rob Gronkowski should take notes…

Let’s chat! Send scoops, tips, complaints and transpo-related song lyrics to hcaygle@politico.comor send a tweet: @heatherscope. Please don’t forget to follow @Morning_Transpo and @POLITICOPro.

“She’s got a T-Top Camaro with a scoop on the hood and two big speakers blasting Johnny B. Goode…”

TSA BREACHES COULD LEAD TO BACKGROUND CHECKS: The TSA is working with the FBI to start conducting continuous background checks on airport and airline employees with security passes rather than just when employees are hired. The agencies are operating a pilot project at 20 airports, TSA acting Deputy Administrator Mark Hatfield said at a House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing Tuesday. But members and Hatfield were less enthusiastic about requiring mandatory screening of all employees, a step pushed by Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nita Lowey. Hatfield said research indicates daily screening wouldn’t add much to security but would be cost-prohibitive.

DeFAZIO WANTS TANK CAR RULE SPLIT: House Transportation ranking member Peter DeFazio is again calling for DOT to split the delayed rule on crude-by-rail tank cars and in the Oregonian’s classic style, he’s using colorful language to make his point. The rule, which has been delayed until May, is “lost somewhere in the bowels of the administration between the agency and the trolls over at the Office of Management and Budget,” DeFazio said during a Tuesday T&I hearing on energy production and infrastructure. He wants the regulations to be split into one rule for tank car design and a separate one for operational standards.

PHMSA audit requested: DeFazio also wants the DOT inspector general to audit PHMSA after what he says are several failures on the agency’s part to address safety issues and get the tank car rule out on time. Read the letter:

GUESS WHAT’S BACK? #PETSONTRAINS: Rep. Jeff Denham is reintroducing his bill that would allow passengers to bring small dogs and cats on Amtrak. Denham has introduced the legislation before and similar language was included in the passenger rail bill approved by the T&I Committee late last year. Amtrak also launched a pilot program based on the California lawmaker’s idea last year. The House Transportation Committee is expected to move a rail bill soon and it’s likely Denham’s proposal will be included. One pup that would be particularly excited to join her owner for a train ride? MT mascot Biggie Smalls:

MT FIRST LOOK: This year’s annual Infrastructure Week will be held May 11-15, the group’s steering committee is set to announce this morning. Infrastructure Week (, which includes events and workshops endorsed by several key transportation groups, will coincide with heated congressional negotiations over how to refuel the Highway Trust Fund before the May 31 deadline.

TRAVEL GROUPS REVOLT OVER OPEN SKIES: Travel groups are upset about reports ( that U.S. airlines are trying to roll back “Open Skies” agreements guaranteeing free trade in aviation. “No sane person would ever argue that U.S. businesses should not be as healthy and profitable as possible,” U.S. Travel Association CEO Roger Dow said. “But we believe any move to abrogate Open Skies would fly in the face of competition and consumer choice, and ultimately harm demand for travel to the U.S.”

BIPARTISAN DUO DROPS INFRASTRUCTURE BILL: Reps. Janice Hahn and Richard Hanna are reintroducing a bill that would encourage – but not require – states to develop their own infrastructure banks. The Hanna-Hahn bill, which is based on a similar federal program that expired in 2009, would allow a state to use up to 15 percent of its federal transportation dollars to establish an infrastructure bank for local road and transit projects.


-International aviation officials endorse universal aircraft tracking. The Wall Street Journal:

-Several killed in Taiwanese plane crash. The AP:

-FAA announces more drone exemptions. POLITICO Pro:

-Selfies contributed to deadly Colorado plane crash, NTSB says. USA Today:

-This is how you control a Tesla with your Apple Watch, you early adopter, you. CNET:

-Obama again eyes corporate jet tax as revenue source. Roll Call:

THE COUNTDOWN: Highway and transit policy expires in 116 days and DOT appropriations run out in 238 days. The FAA reauthorization expires in 238 days. The 2016 presidential election is in 643 days.

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