Transportation News for August 21, 2015

  • by BPC Staff
  • on August 21, 2015


POLITICO Morning Transportation for 8/21/2015

By JENNIFER SCHOLTES, with help from Lauren Gardner

FEDS LAUNCH GYROCOPTER-DETECTION TEST: DoD’s aerospace arm will test its gyrocopter-detecting skills this weekend, after mistaking the small aircraft that infamously landed on the Capitol lawn this spring for something inconsequential like a kite or balloons. NORAD will launch the exercise — dubbed Falcon Virgo 15-13 — on Sunday morning, sending four gyrocopters and ultralights into D.C.-area skies. While the public might get a glimpse at the aircraft, don’t expect to see NORAD practicing a takedown. “Military aircraft will not be visible for this exercise and at no time during the exercise will NORAD assets attempt to intercept the aircraft,” the agency advises.
These NORAD training exercises happen now and then. But this one is extra special, of course, since lawmakers have pressured the agency to improve its ability to pinpoint low-altitude and slow-speed aerial vehicles flying in the capital region. Congressional leaders were expectedly astonished that NORAD, the FAA, the Secret Service and the National Park Service police were all oblivious to the gyrocopter that traveled for about 30 miles in restricted airspace and down the National Mall before the Florida mailman who was piloting the mini-aircraft safely landed it on Capitol grounds in April.

Birds and balloons: NORAD and the other federal agencies that were totally clueless to the gyrocopter have argued that the miss is not a reflection of their incompetence but of the fact that it’s just really hard to identify aircraft that small. Northern Command chief Adm. William Gortney told lawmakers in April that NORAD is “working against physics” because the radar system is “only capable down to a set of characteristics … based on speed and based on size.” And FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the blip the gyrocopter produced was indistinguishable from the “small dots” of non-aircraft radar tracks marking “flocks of birds, weather events, or occasional kites or balloons.”

A refresher on the congressional inquisition that followed the gyrocopter’s landing:

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“Just a quarter-mile, and I’ll smoke you good, in my 455 Rocket — the kind the po-lice drive.”

DOT DIVULGES TRUCK PARKING FINDINGS: DOT will detail the results this morning of its survey on truck parking shortages, as Congress mandated in 2012 through MAP-21. The Wall Street Journal posted some of the survey’s findings early this morning, reporting that DOT found that more than 75 percent of truck drivers surveyed and nearly 66 percent of logistics personnel said they regularly had a hard time finding safe places to park and rest. And 90 percent said they found it difficult to locate safe parking at night. WSJ’s Betsy Morris reports ( that “unofficial or illegal truck parking places have become so common that safety officials in 48 states reported they could identify the locations. Officials in 11 states could identify 11 or more places, according to the study. Nearly half the time those ad hoc locations were freeway ramps; 27 percent of the time freeway shoulders and 20 percent of the time they were parking lots, it found.”

Jason’s Law: If you can think back that far, MAP-21 didn’t actually create a truck parking program. But it allowed some transportation grants to be applied toward construction of safe truck parking areas and the opening of existing facilities to truck parking. While Congress never cleared a standalone bill, the MAP-21 provisions are sometimes referred to as “Jason’s Law” language, since there was a push to improve truck parking after trucker Jason Rivenburg was murdered in 2009 while resting at an empty gas station.

U.S. DRIVING HITS HISTORIC HIGH: Vehicles on U.S. roads traveled 1.54 trillion miles in the first half of this year, beating the previous record of 1.5 trillion from 2007. The Federal Highway Administration said in a statement Thursday that the new number “is more than double the amount driven during the same period in 1981, continuing a trend of America’s driving mileage doubling nearly every generation.” The agency says Hawaii has seen the most dramatic increase in driving, while Northeastern states have experienced a much slighter uptick. Check out all the data in FHWA’s monthly report on traffic volume trends:

FAA GETS FLAK FOR CLOSE-CALL DRONE REPORT: Pointing to new reports of drones nearly colliding with planes hundreds of times this year, Sen. Richard Blumenthal is throwing blame at the FAA this week, saying that the agency’s delays in finalizing flight rules “portend the continuing, unimpeded proliferation of drones alongside passenger planes, helicopters, and other traditional users of airspace.” The Washington Post wrote ( Thursday that pilots have reported nearly 700 incidents this year involving drones that almost hit planes. The newspaper cited “several hundred” of those close-call reports it acquired from a government official who disagreed with the FAA’s decision to withhold the information from the public.

‘Horror and havoc’: In a letter Thursday to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, Blumenthal urged the agency to “take aggressive action” to protect everyone who relies on safe skies. “As you take administrative and regulatory steps to satisfy congressional requirements, I also call on your agency to take strong and swift enforcement steps immediately against anyone endangering the skies,” the senator wrote. “It is incumbent on your agency to use your enforcement powers to stop activity that could result in the horror and havoc of a downed passenger plane or similar tragedy.” That correspondence:

Watchdogging: DOT’s inspector general announced Thursday that the office plans to audit the FAA’s approval and oversight process for drones, “given the significant and complex challenges of safely integrating UAS into the National Airspace System and the increasing number of UAS operations.” And Blumenthal’s letter and the divulgence of the close-call data comes a day after Sen. Chuck Schumer committed to offering an amendment to whatever FAA reauthorization measure Congress passes this fall to require the agency to mandate that drones include software to prohibit them from flying too high or over sensitive areas:

SENATORS CALL FOR EVEN MORE MASSIVE TAKATA RECALL: It’s time to stop troubleshooting with deadly Takata airbags and recall every vehicle with one installed, Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Ed Markey are insisting, pointing to revelations that a Takata side airbag in a 2015 model year Volkswagen Tiguan ruptured in a way that could have been lethal. Our Kathryn A. Wolfe explains that “the accident opens two new fronts in the ongoing airbag saga — first, it involved a new model car; and second, it involved a side airbag. Previous recalls implicated mostly older model cars subjected to heat and humidity, and also only involved driver front airbags.”

More from Kathy: The letter the senators sent Thursday to a top Takata official: The Detroit News story on the Volkswagen accident:

AVIATION EMPLOYMENT CONTINUES TO RISE: U.S. airlines employed 3 percent more workers this June than the same month in 2014, making it the highest monthly airline employment total in nearly seven years, DOT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported this week. The June increase marks the 19th consecutive month that airline employment has exceeded the same month in the previous year. Low-cost carriers like Southwest have seen the highest year-to-year increase in employment with a 4.9 percent jump, followed by the five network airlines at 3.1 percent and the 12 regional carriers at 0.1 percent.

UNIONS ASK T&I TO SHUN SENATE HAIR TESTING PROPOSAL: Transportation unions are urging House T&I leaders to break from the Senate stance on hair testing provisions the upper chamber included in its multiyear transportation funding bill. “The Senate has undermined the expertise of scientists and potentially jeopardized the jobs of thousands of bus and truck drivers with this unproven testing method,” AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Edward Wytkind said in written statement on Thursday. “We urge the House to reject the Senate’s hair testing provision and ensure that federal drug tests are backed by scientific and forensically sound evidence. Nothing less should be acceptable.”

The divergence: The multiyear transportation plan the Senate passed in late July would allow companies that employ commercial drivers to use hair samples for drug testing rather than urine analysis. Proponents say hair testing is more effective because drugs stay longer in hair than urine, while opponents say darker and more porous hair retains drugs at a greater rate and can absorb drugs in the environment. Read the letter the AFL-CIO’s transportation branch signed with 17 other groups:


— House T&I subcommittee counsel Fred Miller has been promoted to staff director for the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials. Miller joined the committee just over four years ago and was an attorney-adviser for the STB before that, as well as attorney-adviser for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, with a focus on infrastructure and security. Chairman Bill Shuster said in a written statement on Thursday that Miller has been “integral to our work, including the development of the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act, and I am pleased that he will be leading our staff as we continue our efforts to improve and reform passenger rail service in the United States.”

— Brookings has just added five nonresident experts to its Metropolitan Policy Program, including Lynn Broaddus, who is president of Broadview Collaborative Inc., where she focuses on transportation issues among many other topics. The think tank has also scored Derek Douglas, who is vice president of civic engagement at the University of Chicago, where his work includes international urban development issues.


— Mayor de Blasio raises prospect of removing Times Square pedestrian plazas. The New York Times:

— Drones banned from Philadelphia skies for pope’s visit. Reuters:

— Court says minimum wage increase applies to airport workers. AP:

— Walkability comes to the American West. CityLab:

— Oakland port proposes trucking fees to fight congestion. The Wall Street Journal:

THE COUNTDOWN: Highway and transit policy expires in 70 days. DOT appropriations run out and the FAA reauthorization expires in 42 days. The 2016 presidential election is in 448 days.