Transportation News for May 22, 2015

  • by BPC Staff
  • on May 22, 2015

POLITICO Morning Transportation for 5/22/2015

By JENNIFER SCHOLTES, with help from Andrew Restuccia, Tarini Parti, Heather Caygle, Nolan D. McCaskill and Aubree Eliza Weaver

SENATE SAVES TRANSPORTATION PATCH FOR LAST: House lawmakers are long gone, but senators are still toiling over trade and surveillance bills, holding out so far on passing the two-month transportation patch the House sent over on Tuesday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took the procedural step Thursday morning to allow the bill to be easily called up for a vote: But passing the patch is likely to be one of the Senate’s last items of business before closing down for Memorial Day break.
Bill text: A refresher on House passage:

COMMITTEE APPROVAL OF TSA NOMINEE EXPECTED AFTER RECESS: When lawmakers return from recess, the Senate Commerce Committee plans to vote on approval of President Barack Obama’s pick to run the TSA. During a confirmation hearing on Thursday, Chairman John Thune said the nomination of Peter Neffenger to be TSA administrator will likely be sent off to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in that first week in June if the panel’s members are satisfied with the nominee’s answers to written questioning in the meantime. Neffenger is currently the Coast Guard’s vice commandant and would be the second Coastie to serve as head of the TSA, following in the footsteps of Adm. James Loy, who became the agency’s second administrator after serving as Coast Guard commandant. A rundown on Neffenger’s confirmation hearing:

IT’S FRIDAY: Good morning and thanks for reading POLITICO’s Morning Transportation, your daily tipsheet on trains, planes, automobiles and ports.

Reach out: or @jascholtes.

Props go today to 17-year-old Gillian Annis from Cypress, Calif., who just won a scholarship for her public service announcement discouraging distracted driving:

“Well, traffic’s kind of bad, they’re widening Easy Street to fit more SUVs.” (h/t Adam Snider)

Programming note: Morning Transportation is taking a break Monday for Memorial Day and will return Tuesday.

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DEMS WORK TO KEEP AMTRAK FIGHT FRESH: Congressional Democrats are proving unrelenting in their criticism of cuts to Amtrak funding, even as more time passes since last week’s derailment. On Thursday, a group of nine senators from states on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor called a press conference to bash their Republican colleagues, harping on last week’s big political throwdown: House appropriators’ decision to cut Amtrak spending by about $260 million. “For the Congress to say to Amtrak that we’re cutting below last year’s expenditures is like forcing a family to choose between food and medicine,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal said. “The medicine is necessary to remedy an illness and the illness for Amtrak is its safety problems. But the food is necessary to reconstruct and reinvigorate decrepit and decaying infrastructure.”

Amtrak reauthorization talks: Sen. Cory Booker remains coy about whether he and Sen. Roger Wicker will include funding in their Amtrak reauthorization bill for the rail service to implement positive train control technology. But he has said PTC is now playing a more central role in those negotiations. Heather explains that “Booker and Wicker had been putting the finishing touches on a multiyear Amtrak bill when last week’s accident happened, causing the two to re-examine the safety programs included in the legislation, particularly PTC.” Booker said this week that the senators hope to roll out the bill after they return from recess.

Cost estimates: Freight and commuter rails estimate the total cost of implementing PTC to be upwards of $12 billion. Of that total, nearly $3.5 billion is estimated for the U.S. commuter rail industry to implement the technology national, not including the cost of buying radio spectrum, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

FAA UNVEILS NEWEST NEXTGEN TECHNOLOGY: Calling this “NextGen’s next big thing,” FAA officials have just rolled out a computerized system pilots and air traffic controllers can use to communicate, rather than connecting only through audio channels. The agency is trying out the technology — called Data Comm — at Newark and says the system “is helping to keep departing airplanes on schedule” going into thunderstorm season. “Data Comm provides a two-way data exchange between controllers and flight crews for clearances, instructions, advisories, flight crew requests and reports,” the agency said in rolling out the system this week. “It enhances air traffic safety by allowing controllers to give more timely and effective clearances.” The FAA plans to have the system operational at more than 50 air traffic control towers this year.

GM OVERSIGHT DRAGS ON FOR ANOTHER YEAR: General Motors’ obligatory monthly meetings with federal officials will go on for another year, and the automaker will need to keep submitting reports about potential safety issues, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced Thursday. The agency is extending an order handed down last year to keep tabs on GM after its massive ignition switch recall. Our Heather Caygle explains that “GM’s faulty ignition switches have been tied to 104 deaths and nearly 200 injuries. In a May 14 letter, NHTSA stressed that its decision to extend the agreement wasn’t due to poor compliance by the automaker.” That letter: The details from Pro:

TAKE THAT, TOW TRUCKS: Punishment could be coming for over-aggressive towing companies, if Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Don Beyer can get their new bill passed. The two Democrats introduced legislation Thursday that would curb predatory towing practices. Van Hollen says the measure would “protect consumers by closing the loophole that allows predatory towing practices to go unpunished … [and] leave consumers with costly bills and no recourse for overcharges and unfair treatment.” The federal agency that once regulated the towing industry was quashed in 1995, and federal law currently restricts regulation of the industry by state and local officials.

FRA FIRMS UP AMTRAK SPEED-CONTROL REQUIREMENTS: Making it official, the Federal Railroad Administration issued an emergency order on Thursday backing up speed-control demands the agency has already made of Amtrak. The rail operator began taking the required steps last weekend in order to restart service on the Northeast Corridor on Monday, modifying code for automatic train control technology to ensure trains don’t exceed speed limits along the corridor’s most dangerous curves. The agency is also requiring Amtrak to survey that swath of track to pinpoint areas where the speed limit is reduced by more than 20 mph and to come up with ways to modify its existing speed-control systems to keep trains from speeding in those areas. More from Pro: The emergency order:

PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION CAUCUS NAMES CO-CHAIRS: The fledgling Public Transportation Caucus has chosen leaders for its second year as a congressional extra-curricular. Rep. Dan Lipinski is staying on as co-chair after forming the group last year with Rep. Michael Grimm, who has since left Congress after pleading guilty to a felony tax charge (and that whole thing about threatening to break a reporter in half and throw him off a balcony). Taking Grimm’s place, freshman Rep. Barbara Comstock is the caucus’ new co-chair.

SENATORS PROD OBAMA TO WRAP UP PHMSA NOMINATION: The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has been without a confirmed leader for more than seven months now, and the vacancy has not gone unnoticed on Capitol Hill. Ten senators wrote to President Barack Obama on Wednesday calling on him to nominate a permanent leader for the agency that is working on rules for railcars that carry crude oil. “It is important to states like ours that PHMSA have a permanent administrator to ensure accountability, to develop long-term plans for pipeline transport and crude-by-rail safety, and to respond quickly when things unfortunately go wrong,” the senators wrote. Signatories include: Sens. Jon Tester, Barbara Boxer, Tammy Baldwin, Maria Cantwell, Dianne Feinstein, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin, Patty Murray, Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow.

CRUISE LINES INTERNATIONAL GETS NEW CEO: POLITICO Influence reports that Cruise Lines International Association has named Thomas Ostebo as its president and CEO, effective July 6. Ostebo joins from the Coast Guard, where he supported strategy and budget policy for the service. Heidrick & Struggles conducted the search.

SOUTHWEST SIGNS EXTRA LOBBY SHOP: Southwest Airlines has hired Kit Bond Strategies to lobby on FAA reauthorization. The airline, which spent $1.1 million on lobbying the federal government, has had only two other firms on retainer — Public Strategies Washington and The Mondello Group. Kit Bond’s Christopher Bond, Shana Marchio and Matthew Roney will be lobbying on behalf of Southwest.


— Chris Christie wants the media to apologize over ‘Bridgegate’. POLITICO:

— Cars and trucks are already meeting — and beating — future fuel efficiency and emission standards. Union of Concerned Scientists:

— Man strips naked at Charlotte airport, upset about overbooked flight. USA Today:

— Deadly Amtrak and 2013 Metro-North crashes raise similar safety questions. Wall Street Journal:

— Prosecutors would face high bar in filing charges against Amtrak engineer. AP:

— Schools turn to propane buses as stricter emissions standards loom. New York Times:

— China may have edge in race to build California’s bullet train. Reuters:

— Court suspends prison term for ex-Korean Air exec in ‘nut rage’ case. AP:

— FAA gave unqualified candidates a chance to work in control towers. Fox Business:

THE COUNTDOWN: Highway and transit policy expires in 10 days. DOT appropriations run out and the FAA reauthorization expires in 132 days. The 2016 presidential election is in 538 days.

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