Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Representative John Mica (R-FL) will retain some influence in helping set transportation policy, even though Pennsylvania Congressman Bill Shuster has taken over as chair of the powerful House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Mica was appointed to three subcommittees: Highways and Transit; Railroads Pipelines and Hazardous Materials; and Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management. He was also named chair of the subcommittee on Government Operations under the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The Winter Park Republican says he's proud of his legacy as chair of the Transportation Committee.
"My replacement is fortunate in that we passed a highway bill, we passed an FAA bill that was stalled for many years under the Democrats, we passed a Coast Guard reauthorization, we passed pipeline safety legislation, so most of the major bills have been passed," he says. "So [Shuster] has time to reassess and then move forward with a highway bill and find a responsible way to go beyond the next two years. "
But Mica says it will be a challenge to try to fix congested and crumbling highways. "Unfortunately it’s almost impossible to increase gas taxes, and that doesn’t really even solve your problem because people are using even less of the traditional gasoline."
"You have alternative fuels, you have plug in cars, and you have cars going much further on one gallon of gas."
One source of revenue included in the current transportation bill allows for extra toll lanes to be built on existing interstates like I-4.
Mica says Amtrak -- which he labels a "Soviet style passenger rail system" -- also needs reform, and he favors allowing private operators to run the passenger rail system.
Meanwhile, Mica says he’s excited about the prospect of private passenger rail starting in the state - with All Aboard Florida proposing a Miami to Orlando service beginning in 2015. "It'll be a project that actually will make money and pay taxes with the private sector," he says. "That's the way we need to be going with passenger rail service across the country."
In Second Inaugural Address, President Obama Says Building Infrastructure, Combating Climate Change Part of "Obligation"
Monday, January 21, 2013
In his second inaugural address, President Barack Obama wove in specific policy recommendations for building roads and combating climate change into a speech urging Americans to join in collective action for a better future.
"We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity," President Obama said. "We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms."
"The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult," the President added. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared."
The president also declared road-building a collective responsibility.
"For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people."
Friday, January 18, 2013
Amtrak and the California High Speed Rail Authority are teaming up to bulk buy rail cars for high-speed rail. "It's like Costco," Jeff Morales, CEO of the California High Speed Rail Authority tells KPCC, "you get better prices."
Morales was visiting Washington, D.C. to get an early start making nice with a new key player in the world of rail megaprojects, Republican Congressman Jeff Denham of California, freshly appointed as chair of the House Railroads Sub-Committee. Denham is a known critic of the California high-speed rail project to connect Los Angeles with San Francisco for a cost of $68.4 billion. According to the Fresno Bee, Denham's home town paper, the congressman was originally in favor of the Calif. high-speed rail plan, but has come to be skeptical about revenue and ridership projections.
Morales also announced California is partnering with Amtrak to shop for locomotives and passenger cars - what railroad types call "train sets." These "train sets" will be a complete set of cars, and the high-speed version will have the power to run the train embedded in each car.
The type of train California and Amtrak are shopping for will be able to run on the curvy Acela routes in the Northeast and the faster, straighter California line.
This move looks like a smart move for both Amtrak and CaHSRA, assuming there is such a car that can work well on both routes. Amtrak says it only needs trains that reach 150 m.p.h. though the national rail network has explored a top speed of 165 m.p.h along the Northeast Corridor, running test trains in September that many rail fans captured on video. CaHSR trains go much faster: 220 m.p.h.
Amtrak said in a release:
"Due to the consistently strong and record setting NEC ridership over the past 10 years, Amtrak needs new and additional HSR equipment. The Amtrak plan envisions an initial acquisition of up to 12 new HSR train sets to supplement current Acela Express service and add seating capacity in the near term. Then, Amtrak would look to replace the 20 current Acela train sets in the early 2020s. California plans a first order of 27 HSR train sets.
"In addition, the preferred train set has Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) power distribution among all cars, operates bi-directionally with a cab car on each end that allows for passenger occupancy and has a seating capacity of 400 to 600 passengers. CHSRA is seeking a HSR train set able to operate up to 220 mph and has Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) power distribution among all cars, operates bi-directionally with a cab on each end that allows for passenger occupancy that has a seating capacity of 450 to 500 passengers per 656 feet train set."
All that is to say, they're in the market for a specific kind of train, but one that could serve them both just fine based on what each agency needs. We'll keep an eye on the Costco approach to high-speed train procurement and watch how much, if at all, partnership moves like this one can sway cost skeptics like Denham.
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood expressed optimism a federal loan would be approved to help finance the $5.5 billion Silver Line rail project, funding that would help slow down projected toll rate increases on the Dulles Toll Road.
“This is one of the first [projects] under the new TIFIA loan program that was passed by Congress in transportation bill, which gave us an enormous amount of money, almost $2 billion over the next two years,” LaHood said. “I would say right now things look good.”
Tolls on the Dulles Toll Road are currently set to finance roughly half the Silver Line’s cost.
After swearing in two federally appointed members to the board of directors of the agency that oversees the Silver Line’s construction, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, LaHood praised the authority’s work to overhaul its ethics, hiring, and contracting practices. Last year an audit by the Department of Transportation revealed a litany of shady dealings at MWAA.
“Since then MWAA has done everything that we have asked them to do,” LaHood said. “That included passing new travel and ethics policy for its board and staff, terminated contracts with former board members and employees that are not competitively bid, adopt employment and nepotism restrictions, improve board transparency, began to make quarterly acquisition reports and forecasts to the [U.S. DOT], and approve an amendment to the lease with DOT to give us oversight of MWAA policies and procedures permanently.”
This progress is a factor in determining whether MWAA will receive a loan through the TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) program.
Last year Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly (D) said he expected the loan could amount to 25 to 30 percent of the project’s cost. When asked on Wednesday how large a TIFIA loan would be for the Silver Line, LaHood declined to speculate, and he offered no estimate on when the final decision would be made.
“You’re the only one that would really care about that, and I’m not going to get into the details about the loan application,” LaHood said. “We are working with MWAA on this and as soon as we finalize the work we will announce what percent we’re going to give and how much money it involves.”
Drivers who use the Dulles Toll Road also care about how much funding the Silver Line may receive. Additional funding would bring down the projected toll rates, currently scheduled to rise over the next four decades.
Tolls on the road increased on January 1. The full, one-way toll increased by 50 cents to $2.75. To the commuter who takes the road every day, that will amount to an extra $260 in 2013. The tolls are scheduled to increase again in January 2014 by another 75 cents.
MWAA CEO Jack Potter said he’s also optimistic MWAA would receive the additional funding.
“We are working very closely with the Department of Transportation, Loudoun County, Fairfax County to put our application in and we are very positive of a good outcome,” Potter said. “I’d like to get as much as we possibly can.”
Potter has been lobbying for more state funding. Virginia lawmakers have approved only $150 million for the Silver Line so far. On Monday Potter met Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton as well as a group of lawmakers who control the purse strings in Richmond.
“I am very much focused on output. The output is dollars coming to the rail project,” Potter said. “How the Commonwealth generates those dollars is strictly Commonwealth business. I am strictly focused on the output of $300 million dollars or more that could come to the rail project.”
In a major transportation funding plan unveiled earlier this month, Governor Bob McDonnell proposed using sales taxes revenues to provide $300 million for the Silver Line over three years. That plan, however, is expected to face opposition in the General Assembly among lawmakers who say the rail project should not compete for general fund revenues normally used to pay for education and public safety.
Monday, January 07, 2013
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wrote on his blog:
"The $4.3 mile Blue Line extension will link downtown Sacramento with the growing South County corridor offering commuters an alternative to driving and connecting the faculty, staff, and students at Cosumnes River College with the shops, restaurants and other businesses in the heart of the city."
From the funding announcement the DOT is envisioning some form of transit oriented development.
"New stores and services, new employers, and new housing will combine with the light rail extension to create communities where people can live and shop closer to where they work... Extending the Blue Line will improve access to the area’s major employers and encourage new retail and residential development in specially zoned areas. According to Sacramento Regional Transit, which operates the line, the extension project will generate 1,000 jobs or more over the next two years."
Last year the Sacramento light rail system saw in increase in ridership of 7. 4 percent over 2011. Much of the projected population grown in the region is expected to come along the South County Corridor.
The money will come from the Federal Transit Administration's capital investment program.
Wednesday, January 02, 2013
By Kate Hinds
After a year of lobbying, transit advocates finally won.
As part of legislation passed Tuesday, pre-tax benefits for transit are now on par with parking benefits. Individuals who get commuter benefits from their employers can now look forward to (about) $240 a month. The measure is particularly meaningful to suburban commuters, who can easily spend more than that amount on transit.
The back story: on December 31, 2011, legislation equalizing transit benefits expired. So for 2012, transit riders received a $125 monthly benefit, although parking remained at $240--a thorn in the side for politicians from transit-dependent states. Last March, New York Senator Charles Schumer authored legislation to re-equalize the benefit, but it wasn't acted on until the fiscal cliff negotiations.
Transit advocates hailed the legislation. "We've been pushing for transit equity for months," said Rob Healy, vice president of the American Public Transportation Association. "From our perspective, we felt it was very, very important that the federal tax code not bias one mode versus another." He added: "You shouldn’t be making your choices based on a tax code which treats parking better than it does transit."
Veronica Vanterpool, the head of the Tri State Transportation Campaign, which advocates for transit riders in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, said when the benefit expired, "it was a de-facto tax increase for transit commuters. It's ludicrous that Congress would incentivize driving over public transportation. So we are particularly pleased that this was restored...we know a lot of our region's senators have really pushed for that."
Vanterpool said about 700,000 people in the tri-state region take advantage of the benefit. And: it's retroactive to January 1, 2012, although the mechanism for calculating those past benefits hasn't yet been determined.
But the current benefit also expires at the end of 2013 -- meaning transit advocates must begin spooling up again.
“It is our hope that in the new Congress, legislation will pass to make the public transit commuter benefit parity permanent,” said APTA president Michael Melaniphy. Vanterpool echoed that sentiment. "Moving forward," she said, "we need to make sure this is a permanent restoration and that we're not dealing with this battle every year."
Monday, December 31, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
The Washington D.C. metropolitan region saw major developments in transportation that included progress toward completing the largest public rail project in the country, the opening of a new highway on the Beltway, and an update on D.C.’s coming streetcar system. 2012 also raised questions critical to the region’s economic future. In a region plagued by some of the worst highway traffic congestion in the nation and a public rail system crowded to capacity, how can transportation planners and real estate developers maximize the region’s economic potential in a climate of finite funding for major projects.
1) The Silver Line
When the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors gave final approval to the county’s involvement in the $5.5 billion project that will connect D.C. to Dulles International Airport, lawmakers removed the last major obstacle to completing the Metro rail line by 2018. Outstanding issues remain, however. The most controversial issue is the Silver Line’s financing plan, overseen by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Without further federal or Virginia state funding, motorists on the Dulles Toll Road will cover half the Silver Line’s costs.
2) I-495 Express Lanes
A new highway is big news in this region. After six years of construction, high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes opened on Nov. 17 on the 495 Beltway between the Dulles Toll Road and the I-95 interchange in Fairfax County. Drivers using the HOT lanes may get a faster ride, but the project raised questions about the wisdom of highway expansion as a method of solving congestion as well as the pitfalls of funding megaprojects: without the public-private partnership between Virginia and the international road building company Transurban, the road would not be built. Virginia gets a $2 billion road, and Transurban gets the toll revenues for 75 years.
3) Transit and Gentrification
Washington, D.C. is one of the fastest gentrifying cities in the United States. While rising property values, economic development, and a growing number of residents living a car-free existence are transforming the District for the better, gentrification has its costs.
4) The Uber Battle for the Ages
After months of contention, the D.C. Council finally approved legislation legalizing the popular sedan car service Uber. This battle was strange -- and it got personal. Legislators and regulators seemed to tie themselves in knots figuring out to handle the unregulated Uber while the district’s own taxicab industry struggled to modernize. In the end Uber won. And so did smartphone-using, taxicab-hailing residents of D.C.
5) MWAA’s woes
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates two major airports, rarely caught the public’s attention. But after the authority took control of the Silver Line, however, the public’s attention intensified – and not for good reasons. Audits by the U.S. Department of Transportation and news reports unearthed a litany of shady contracting, hiring, and travel policies and practices. Critics have relentlessly pressed for changes to the plan to raise tolls significantly to pay for the Silver Line. MWAA is making changes but has not yet recovered the public’s trust.
Friday, December 28, 2012
Sandy's storm surge flooded hundred-year-old tunnels, drowned power stations, and inflicted a commuting nightmare on millions of Northeast residents for weeks. It also caused a mini-boom in bike ridership -- and elevated climate change to a hot topic in transportation planning.
New York and New Jersey were both hit hard, but each state planned --and responded -- differently. NJ Transit took heavy damage with major routes offline for weeks after parking trains in a flood plain, because, as one executive said, "we thought we had 20 years to respond to climate change." That decision cost the agency $100 million. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was also hit by unprecedented flooding. While in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo is saying the next generation of infrastructure must take climate change into consideration, we learned that across the river, Governor Chris Christie had deep-sixed his state's climate change research department.
The NYC subway was known to be vulnerable to a powerful storm surge, and flooded as predicted. In the storm's aftermath, the agency furiously tweeted updates and churned out service maps with lightning speed - .gif -- impressing even traditionally harsh critics. But while much of the damage was dealt with quickly, other assets -- like the South Ferry subway station, and the A train out to the Rockaways -- remain unrestored. Also unclear: how the agency will cover the $5 billion in damages. So far, the plan is to take on debt rather than pile on to an already scheduled fare hike.
Our complete Sandy coverage is here.
A New Tappan Zee Bridge Moves from Idea to Design Plan
The aging Tappan Zee Bridge is being replaced at the cost of several billion dollars -- making it the largest contract ever awarded in New York State. After a lengthy debate about adding transit, which some argued should at least include a plan for bus rapid transit, Cuomo said speed and cost outweighed the merits of adding a rail line. Transit advocates howled, and some key county officials held up a vote -- but the governor's vision ultimately prevailed: the bridge will be 'transit-ready' -- meaning plans for a rail link or a fully iterated BRT line have been tabled for a future date.
Meanwhile, the issue of how to pay for the bridge has yet to be resolved. The bridge wasn't included in the first round of federal TIFIA loans; the state has since re-applied. The governor said the brunt of the cost would come from tolls -- but the backlash to the idea of a $14 crossing was swift. A builder was chosen this month (see pics) and work will begin after the state comptroller okays the contract. The new bridge is scheduled to open in 2018.
Street Safety Investigations
We'll have more on this in the new year, but our work on monitoring safe streets in NYC continued with two investigative reports. In our report "Walking While Poor" we found that, in New Jersey, it is more dangerous to be a pedestrian in low income neighborhoods.
And in New York City, our report Killed While Cycling, uncovered why so few fatal bike crashes lead to arrest. The laws just aren't written to punish vehicle crashes with a criminal response and the NYPD has just 19 detectives assigned to investigate criminality when a car or truck hits someone or something. The department argues more lives can be saved by preventative methods, like speed traps. The result, families of those killed on NYC streets rarely feel justice is done.
After deadly crashes, Chinatown buses wane -- and Bolt and Megabus move in.
New York was the original nexus of a curbside bus network that became known as Chinatown buses because they picked up passengers from unofficial bus stops in Chinatowns up and down the Northeast corridor. But the busy corner under the Manhattan Bridge that was once the nexus of this travel network is now mostly empty.
After a deadly year of crashes in 2011, many said the industry was unsafe. While confused travelers tried to figure out just who regulates Chinatown buses, the government took notice. In June, the U.S. DOT shut down 26 bus companies that operate along the most popular routes: the I-95 corridor from New York to Florida. The DOT called it the “largest single safety crackdown in the agency’s history."
And while some Chinatown buses are still discreetly operating, they're losing market share: mainstream bus companies like Greyhound are expanding their curbside businesses, actively meeting with community boards to add stops in Chinatown itself.
This is one story that became way bigger than we expected. It started out simply enough: Transportation Nation asked readers to help map all of the abandoned bikes in New York City. (For those unfamiliar with NYC: abandoned bikes are strewn about our sidewalks like cigarette butts after a party, the detritus of modern mobility.) We wanted to know how many of these bike carcasses there were, and why they stayed so long encumbering walkways, taking up prime bike parking without being removed by authorities.
The response was overwhelming, both for our humble project and for the city. We found more than 500 busted bikes, cataloged in photos sent in from WNYC listeners. We mapped them through an online civic action platform (SeeClickFix )that anyone could update.
When we began to get inquiries from artists and abandoned bike fans (yes, they exist), we picked out our favorite bike photos from the stack and shared them with each other. WNYC listeners called in to confess and explained why they left cycles to rust away. The project spread to Washington, D.C. A nonprofit offered to recycle them. Several photographers sent in links to their own portfolios of abandoned bike art. And so we collected authentic abandoned bikes and turned them into an art exhibit. Meanwhile, the city also promised to collect more of them as they streamlined the process for reporting and removal.
See the full project here.
Lost Subways of New York
We kicked off 2012 with a look at the subway system that never was: dozens of tunnels and platforms that were either abandoned or were built but never used. They form a kind of ghost system that reveals how the city’s transit ambitions have been both realized and thwarted.
Friday, December 28, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) A federal mediator has announced that dockworkers at East and Gulf Coast ports will not go on strike this Saturday, as threatened. The International Longshoremen’s Association and United States Maritime Alliance have agreed to extend their contract negotiations for an additional 30 days.
A strike, which had the potential to cost hundreds of millions of dollars in lost wages and economic activity, seemed likely after talks between the two sides broke down on December 18.
At issue was a wage structure that includes royalties to union workers based on cargo weight. There is now an agreement in principle on wages, with more bargaining needed to seal the deal.
The National Retail Federation said it welcomed the news while striking a note of caution in a statement: "We continue to urge both parties to remain at the negotiating table until a long-term contract agreement is finalized." The New York Shipping Association agreed, saying, it "is looking forward to getting to the table to begin serious bargaining on the local agreement and to start the process of change.”
Below is a statement on the agreement by Director George H. Cohen of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service:
WASHINGTON, D.C. — “I am extremely pleased to announce that the parties have reached the agreements set forth below as a result of a mediation session conducted by myself and my colleague Scot Beckenbaugh, Deputy Director for Mediation Services, on Thursday, December 27, 2012:
“The container royalty payment issue has been agreed upon in principle by the parties, subject to achieving an overall collective bargaining agreement. The parties have further agreed to an additional extension of 30 days (i.e., until midnight, January 28, 2013) during which time the parties shall negotiate all remaining outstanding Master Agreement issues, including those relating to New York and New Jersey. The negotiation schedule shall be set by the FMCS after consultation with the parties.”
“Given that negotiations will be continuing and consistent with the Agency’s commitment of confidentiality to the parties, FMCS shall not disclose the substance of the container royalty payment agreement. What I can report is that the agreement on this important subject represents a major positive step toward achieving an overall collective bargaining agreement. While some significant issues remain in contention, I am cautiously optimistic that they can be resolved in the upcoming 30-day extension period.”
Thursday, December 27, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) UPDATED WITH WHITE HOUSE COMMENTS
The White House is urging dockworkers and shipping companies to reach agreement on a contract extension for East Coast and Gulf Coast dockworkers whose existing pact expires this week.
Obama spokesman Matt Lehrich said Thursday the White House is monitoring the situation closely and urges the parties to "continue their work at the negotiating table to get a deal done as quickly as possible."
Earlier this week, a federal mediator called a meeting of the International Longshoreman's Association (ILA) and an alliance of shipping concerns in an eleventh-hour effort to avert a commercially crippling East and Gulf Coast port strike on December 29.
Director George Cohen of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service said the parties have agreed to attend, but gave no information beyond that "due to the sensitive nature of the negotiations."
Dockworkers from Massachusetts to Texas are threatening to walk off the job if an agreement isn't reached by Saturday at midnight, when their contract extension expires.
Talks between the two sides broke down December 18. “We at New York Shipping Association are certainly disappointed that the USMX – ILA negotiations are apparently coming to an abrupt end," said association president Joseph Curto.
The New York-New Jersey ports handled $208 billion of cargo last year, most on the East Coast.
But in what may be a sign that negotiations are gearing up to resume, "no comment" was the uniform word from all sides in the dispute: the New York Shipping Association, USMX (a consortium of 24 container carriers and every major marine terminal operator and port associations on the East and Gulf Coasts) and the ILA, which represents 14,500 workers at more than a dozen ports extending south from Boston and handling 95 percent of all containerized shipments from Maine to Texas, about 110 million tons' worth.
The Associated Press reports that issues including wages are unresolved, but the key sticking point is container royalties, which are payments to union workers based on cargo weight.
Port operators and shipping companies, represented by the Marine Alliance, want to cap the royalties at last year's levels. They say the royalties have morphed into a huge expense unrelated to their original purpose and amount to a bonus averaging $15,500 a year for East Coast workers already earning more than $50 an hour.
The longshoremen's union says the payments are an important supplemental wage, not a bonus.
USMX, on its website, gives several examples of the economic devastation that could result from a strike, including these numbers related to the Port of New York and New Jersey:
- Employs more ILA members than any of the 13 other East and Gulf Coast ports, the union’s 3,250 members would lose $7.5 million a week in wages alone.
- A strike at the port, the largest on the East Coast, could also put at risk the nearly 171,000 jobs directly related to its operations.
- A shutdown would result in $100 million in lost revenue a month for railroads, truckers and other port-related transportation industries that handle more than 250,000 containers per month.
The National Retail Federation wrote to President Obama last week and asked him to use "all means necessary" to head off a strike. “A strike of any kind at ports along the East and Gulf Coast could prove devastating for the U.S. economy,” said Matthew Shaw, the group's president and CEO.
Earlier this month, an eight-day strike shut down the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. That strike was resolved only after a federal mediator was brought in.
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
(Michael Grabell ProPublica) Following months of congressional pressure, the Transportation Security Administration has agreed to contract with the National Academy of Sciences to study the health effects of the agency's X-ray body scanners. But it is unclear if the academy will conduct its own tests of the scanners or merely review previous studies.
The machines, known as backscatters, were installed in airports nationwide after the failed underwear bombing on Christmas Day 2009 to screen passengers for explosives and other nonmetallic weapons. But they have been criticized by some prominent scientists because they expose the public to a small amount of ionizing radiation, a form of energy that can cause cancer.
The scanners were the subject of a 2011 ProPublica series, which found that the TSA had glossed over the small cancer risk posed by even low doses of radiation. The stories also showed that the United States was almost alone in the world in X-raying passengers and that the Food and Drug Administration had gone against its own advisory panel, which recommended the agency set a federal safety standard for security X-rays.
The TSA maintains that the backscatters are safe and that they emit a low dose of X-rays equivalent to the radiation a passenger would receive in two minutes of flying at typical cruising altitude.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Senate homeland security committee, introduced a bill mandating such a test earlier this year.
"I am pleased that at long last the Transportation Security Administration has heeded my call to commission an independent examination into the possible health risks travelers and TSA employees may face during airport screenings," she said in a statement Monday night.
According to a brief contract notice posted on a government procurement website, the National Academy of Sciences will convene a committee to review previous studies to determine if the dose from the scanners complies with existing health and safety standards and to evaluate the TSA's methods for testing and maintaining the machines.
Collins' office said the language in the contract notice wasn't final and that the study would be consistent with the senator's calls for an independent investigation. TSA spokesman David Castelveter added, "Administrator [John] Pistole has made a commitment to conduct the study and TSA is following through on that commitment."
Still, it's unclear how much the study that the TSA is proposing will add to what's known about the machines, mainly because it's not known if the National Academy of Sciences will conduct new tests or confine itself to examining previous studies. In the past, TSA has contracted with the Food and Drug Administration, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Army Public Health Command to test the scanners. All three studies found the radiation was in line with a voluntary standard set by an industry panel that included FDA scientists.
A 2012 study by the Department of Homeland Security's independent watchdog supported the findings but based its report on previous tests performed by the TSA and the other groups.
This fall, the TSA began replacing the X-ray body scanners with millimeter-wave machines 2013 a technology radiation experts consider safer 2013 at most of its biggest airports. The TSA said the move was done to speed up lines and that the X-ray scanners would eventually be redeployed at smaller airports.
Europe has prohibited the X-ray scanners while Israel, which is influential in the security world, has recently begun testing them.
The TSA study will not address privacy, cultural or legal concerns that have been raised by the scans, the contract notice said.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
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Tuesday, December 18, 2012
(Emily DeMarco - PublicSource) The shale gas drilling industry wants to move its wastewater by barge on rivers and lakes across the country. But the U.S. Coast Guard, which regulates the nation’s waterways, must first decide whether it’s safe.
“It may be hazardous,” said Commander Michael Roldan, chief of the Coast Guard’s Hazardous Material Division, stressing the word ‘may.’ “If it is, it would not be allowed to ship under bulk.”
Right now, he pointed out during an interview with PublicSource, it can’t be shipped by barge, even though there has been confusion in Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Ohio about whether it could be.
The Coast Guard has been considering whether to allow the industry to use the waterways for about a year, according to Roldan, who said the question came up when the Marine Safety Unit Pittsburgh -- the local office of the Coast Guard -- called the Washington office to clarify whether bulk transport was allowed after Marcellus Shale drillers began making inquiries.
The Coast Guard’s decision would affect more than Pittsburgh’s iconic three rivers. Nearly 12,000 miles of waterways could be open to these waterborne behemoths, each carrying 10,000 barrels of wastewater.
Like so many questions involving the shale gas industry, it’s a divisive one. Environmentalists said the possibility of a spill that could contaminate Pittsburgh’s rivers with chemicals isn’t worth the risk. But industry officials who advocate waterway transport said barges are the safest, and cheapest, way to move this stuff.
A barge accident would be a “massive catastrophe,” said Steve Hvozdovich, Marcellus campaign coordinator for Clean Water Action, a national environmental advocacy organization.
“It’s not just a contamination of a waterway,” Hvozdovich said. “You’re talking about the contamination of the drinking water supply for about half a million people....It seems like a very bad idea.”
However, industry officials and transportation experts counter that other industrial materials, some toxic, are moved on barges now. They include chlorine, hydrochloric acid and anhydrous ammonia. Why should the drilling industry be treated differently? they ask.
Anyone who says moving the wastewater is a danger doesn’t know what’s on the waters already, said John Jack, vice president of business development and operations for GreenHunter Water, a company that handles wastewater for major oil companies.
“Look what’s going down the waters right now,” Jack said, “highly toxic stuff....There’s nothing in our product that’s hazardous.”
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, requires about five millions gallons of water per well. Water is combined with chemicals and sand and shot deep underground, releasing pockets of gas from shale rock formations.
Depending on the well, about 15 to 80 percent of what was injected returns to the surface. That’s called ‘flowback.’ Plus, the well continues to regurgitate naturally occurring water from inside the shale, which is called ‘produced water.’ Both liquids become wastewater, which is often called “brine.”
Complications arise for the Coast Guard’s analysis because companies use proprietary mixtures of chemicals in fracking. And, salt, hydrocarbons and radioactive elements that occur naturally underground catch a free ride with the watery mixture to the surface.
“If there wasn’t the variability, this would be a much easier process,” Roldan said.
The agency is determining appropriate ‘ceilings’ for each component in the wastewater. Companies that want to ship by bulk would have to test their wastewater first. If the components are under the Coast Guard’s ceilings, companies would be given the green light, assuming approval.
The Coast Guard’s biggest concern about the wastewater is what Roldan calls the ‘bathtub ring’ effect inside the barges. Just as, after many showers and baths, calcium in tap water can leave a ring around the tub, radioactive particles in the wastewater may accumulate inside the barge.
Workers and inspectors on the barges could be at risk after long-term exposure, he said, and the agency would likely require regular testing of the barges for radioactivity.
Roldan couldn’t say when the Coast Guard’s determination of whether wastewater can be safely moved on barges would be complete. In part, that is because the nationwide issue is complicated. For example, experts from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Transportation and Energy have weighed in already.
Others, including a committee established by the White House, will likely review the draft proposal.
The agency plans to publish its proposal on transporting wastewater in the Federal Register. Then, the public and the industry will have an opportunity to weigh in.
But there has been great confusion at the ports about the rules.
Officials at GreenHunter, which moves wastewater for some of the largest drilling companies in the Marcellus and Utica Shales by truck, planned to start using barges before the end of the year because they believed it was allowed, Jack said. They’ve been investing in five terminals in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
“I’ve had the regional commanders out to our sites and nobody told us that we couldn’t” move it by barge, he said. His understanding, he said, is that it’s being done in Texas and Louisiana.
The Pittsburgh office of the Coast Guard declined to comment.
But Roldan’s reaction was immediate when asked whether any company is allowed to do this. “No, they’re not allowed,” he said. “You may want to tell them before we catch them.”
However, he said he understood the confusion because of the way the current regulations are worded. “A liberal reading … could lead to a misinterpretation,” he said.
One question the agency couldn’t answer is the expected volume of wastewater that would be shipped over the rivers.
“We’ve been asking ourselves this,” Roldan said.
In Pennsylvania alone, about 23 million barrels of wastewater were generated in 2011, according to PublicSource calculations using data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Oil & Gas Reporting website. The data are self-reported by the producers and are not vetted by the DEP.
While about 99 percent of the waste from shale drilling is just water, the remaining one percent is salt, chemicals, and radioactive particles.
A spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition declined to answer questions about moving waste on barges and instead emphasized the industry’s commitment to recycling wastewater.
Today, new technology has increased the capacity for on-site recycling, but that is costly. Transporting the waste off-site to disposal or treatment locations is still needed by the industry.
Less road wear and tear
Shale gas companies have good reason to eye the waterways.
Transporting wastewater by barges has environmental, safety and economic benefits, Jack, of GreenHunter, said. For example, a major drilling company would save 58,000 trucking hours by using barges.
And trucks have about 2,000 accidents for every barge accident, he said, citing data from the DOT and the Coast Guard.
James McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission, an agency that advocates for waterway transport, said using barges is a good idea.
“The more that it can be moved on waterways, the less wear and tear of roads,” he said, adding that barges also produce less air pollution than trucks.
And they’re a fraction of the cost. Barges cost only about 10 percent of the cost to move the waste by truck, said Jim Kruse, director of the Center for Ports and Waterways Institute at Texas A&M University. They are 20 to 30 percent cheaper than trains, he said.
The change would not eliminate trucks because they'd still be needed to get the wastewater from the drill rigs to the barges.
Three gas drilling companies have already approached Pittsburgh-based Campbell Transportation Co. about moving their wastewater by barge, said Peter Stephaich, one of Campbell’s shareholders.
“We are regulated by just about everybody,” he said, listing federal and state agencies that oversee barge companies. Stephaich said he’s confident that wastewater will be moved responsibly.
“If we move it, we’ll move it within the rules,” he said. “If the costs are too high, we won’t do it.”
Operators like Campbell may have to purchase new equipment, retrofit their infrastructure, and train their crews.
Benjamin Stout, a biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University (about 60 miles southwest of Pittsburgh), is one expert who didn’t know about the Coast Guard’s review.
“Oh crap,” he said. “A lot of things could go wrong.”
For example, wastewater contains bromides. Bromides transform into carcinogens when they are pumped through water treatment facilities, Stout said.
If there was a barge accident, the treatment facilities would have to shut their intake valves of river water, he said. Cities such as Pittsburgh and Wheeling use water from the Ohio River for drinking.
(Stout is a board member of FracTracker, a non-profit that disseminates data about the shale gas industry. Both FracTracker and PublicSource are funded, in part, by the Heinz Endowments.)
Despite his alarm, Stout said he is glad that the Coast Guard is studying the issue because it’s one more determination about an industry that currently doesn’t offer a lot of transparency.
Asked whether the Coast Guard is being lobbied by the industry, Roldan said: “We’re not really feeling pressure. We could deny it.”
Reach Emily DeMarco at 412-315-0262 or email@example.com.
View this story on the PublicSource site here.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
The agency managing the construction of the $5.5 billion Silver Line rail project in Northern Virginia spent more than a million dollars in legal fees in two lawsuits defending one of its board members in a battle with Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.
In a confidential memo obtained by WAMU 88.5, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) board details the $1.5 million in legal fees spent defending Dennis Martire, a labor union official who agreed to resign from the MWAA board of directors in September.
In June the McDonnell administration tried to oust Martire from the board. He sued to keep his seat, and the airports authority agreed to reimburse his legal expenses. He was reimbursed $855,000, according to the memo.
In an interview with WAMU, Martire said he was entitled to legal assistance under MWAA policy.
“We have an indemnification policy that every board member has the right to due process and every board member has the right to face their accusers if you are accused of anything,” said Martire, who drew intense criticism after it was revealed he had spent $38,000 traveling to five conferences while MWAA director.
In his view, however, Martire was targeted for political reasons: the McDonnell administration wanted greater control of the MWAA board.
“The governor was removing me for booking a plane ticket two weeks before a trip, and we spent $1.5 million dollars of MWAA money to defend that case. It's ludicrous,” Martire said. “There is a movement afoot to make it an all-Virginia board. There is a movement afoot to create a Republican-dominated board.”
The confidential memo says the airports authority also spent $360,000 to defend itself and one of its top officials, and nearly $200,000 was spent defending three other board members – Rusty Conner, Todd Stottlemyer, and former Va. Congressman Tom Davis – who were subpoenaed during the litigation.
MWAA chief counsel Phil Sunderland did not return multiple calls seeking comment.
MWAA Legal Fees
Monday, December 17, 2012
By Kate Hinds
UPDATE: It's official: New York has awarded the contract to construct the new Tappan Zee Bridge.
In a press release, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said, “the Thruway Board has selected the Tappan Zee Constructors’ plan which offers New York toll payers the biggest bang for their buck – with the best price, shortest construction time, minimal dredging, and can accommodate mass transit in the future. This is a major milestone for a bridge project that was a metaphor for the dysfunction of government and is now a national model for progress.”
Earlier Monday, Tom Madison, the executive director of the New York State Thruway Authority, said he was supporting a $3.1 billion plan to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge.
The board unanimously approved the contract at its meeting on Monday.
The wining design was recommended by a selection committee earlier this month. At $3.1 billion, it's the least expensive of the three design finalists; Madison pointed out that with a construction time of five years, 2.5 months, it's also the fastest to build. It's one of the largest contracts ever executed in New York -- and it will be the first project constructed under the state's new design-build legislation.
The winning bidder is Tappan Zee Constructors -- a consortium led by Fluor Enterprises, Inc.. One of the team members is American Bridge -- the company which constructed the original Tappan Zee back in 1955.
No financing plan is yet in place to construct the bridge. Cuomo reiterated Monday "the tolls on the Tappan Zee will be one of the main funding sources for that bridge." The state is also waiting to see if the federal government will approve its request for a $2.9 billion TIFIA loan.
New York's comptroller has to sign off on the contract.
Thursday, December 13, 2012
On Capitol Hill today, high-speed rail in the Northeast will get dissected and debated. This time though, Amtrak head Joe Boardman will sit at the witness table with some support from record ridership numbers. And also Sandy.
The hearing continues a series of grillings GOP lawmakers have been giving to Amtrak in a push to reduce the subsidies the national rail network relies on each year. Other witnesses on the docket include a DOT rep, an American Enterprise Institute Scholar and a Morgan Stanley managing director.
The 15 word hearing title obscures the topic, so it's pasted way down below in this post, but rest assured the conversation will cover privatization of high-speed rail along the Northeast Corridor.
Outgoing House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica who will chair today's hearing has long supported the idea of building high-speed rail in the Northeast because that route is the only one profitable for Amtrak, but he has argued that funding, and even operations, could be provided by the private sector. Big spending on big projects need not come entirely from the government, Mica has argued.
Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution says, "Superstorm Sandy did change the conversation around infrastructure, particularly in the Northeast."
The storm, which caused $60 million in losses to Amtrak and billions in damages to other transit agencies, showed the need for expensive upgrades, and a scale of risk involved that demands more active government investment. "The enormous bills we have from Sandy are not going to be born by the private sector. It's ridiculous to think so."
He says, "there is a role for the private sector to play" and he hopes the hearings hone in on it because finding the right role is crucial.
Puentes also says, states are likely to play an increasingly large role in Amtrak funding in the future. As the national government becomes more reticent to pay for unprofitable rail routes, states that want to keep their service will have to start chipping in.
One test case to watch for this model could be the Sunset Limited line along the Gulf Coast that was washed away in 2005 by Katrina. Local officials are lobbying to get it back. The cash-strapped states of Alabama and Mississippi would need to pony up though, and so far it's stalled.
Today's hearing though, is on the Northeast Corridor, where megaprojects are on the table and profits are a reasonable lure for business involvement. The "vision" for high-speed rail still carries a price tag of $151 billion and a minimum construction time of several decades. There is no plan for how to find that huge sum.
Amtrak is likely to try to draw the focus to a more immediate project that is incremental to the "vision," the Gateway program, which would add two new tunnels under the Hudson River into New York's Penn Station from New Jersey. There are two existing Hudson tunnels at capacity now. They both flooded during Sandy along with two of the four tunnels under the East River.
Petra Messick, a planner with Amtrak says the tunnels are needed for projected ridership growth but, Sandy also showed the value that new infrastructure could bring.
"When the Gateway Tunnels are built, they will be built in the 21st century and include a host of features that will make them more resilient ... like floodgates," Messick says.
The existing tunnels are more than a century old.
And in case you were still curious, that full 15 word title is: “Northeast Corridor Future: Options for High-Speed Rail Development and Opportunities for Private Sector Participation.”
Friday, December 07, 2012
The driver of a casino bus that crashed, killing 15, is not guilty of manslaughter. Prosecutors had argued Ophadell Williams was so sleep-deprived and drowsy behind the wheel that it was as reckless as if he were drunk.
But a Bronx jury was not convinced. Williams faced 15 counts of manslaughter and was acquitted on all of them. He was found guilty of one count of aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle and sentenced to 30 days in jail, which he has already served. He has to pay a fine of $500. When he heard the verdict, Williams covered his face with his hands and wept.
Though the consequences are relatively light for Williams, the inter-city bus industry has suffered a considerable shakeup.
It was a gruesome crash that instantly raised the profile of dangerous driving conditions at many so-called Chinatown buses, the fastest growing mode of inter-city travel.
Here's how the crash went down. In March, 2011, Williams was on a dawn run to New York from a Connecticut Casino, driving for World Wide Travel, a company with a track record of pushing drivers to work long hours.
A report by the Federal Motorcoach Safety Administration found that in the moments before crashing, he’d been driving 78 mph. As we've previously reported:
"According to the report, the bus swerved to the right off the highway, crossed an eleven-foot wide shoulder and smashed into a three-foot-tall steel guardrail. The bus plowed through the guardrail for 480 feet as it toppled onto its side. The bus’ windshield hit the post of a massive highway sign, which sheared the bus in two along the base of the passenger windows almost all the way to the rear. The bus came to rest on top of the crushed guardrail, its wheels in the air, facing the highway."
The Bronx crash was one of three inter-city bus crashes in the Northeast in March, 2011, which killed a total of 17 people and injured dozens of others.
There were more to come. A bus from North Carolina bound for New York flipped on its roof in late May, killing four. Operator Sky Express was shut down by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration within hours. Bloomberg reported that Sky Express had accumulated so many violations that it could have been shut down prior to the crash.
In July, a pair of fatal crashes in New York — one inbound from Canada that left the driver dead and another from Washington that killed two — occurred within days of each other.
There were 24 motor coach crashes last year, resulting in 34 fatalities and 467 injuries, according to an unofficial tally kept by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
World Wide Travel was shuttered in June 2011, but the owner continued to operate bus service for other companies he owns, according to The New York Times. The practice of "reincarnation" had plagued regulatory efforts to punish the worst of the worst bus companies.
Not to be stopped by it's own regulations, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration the agency that oversees bus safety, along with the National Highway Transportation Safety Board ratcheted up investigations and actions against unsafe bus companies.
In May of 2011, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood issued rules requiring new bus lines to undergo safety audits before they can sell their first ticket. And bus drivers could lose their commercial licenses if they violate drug and alcohol laws even while operating their own private car.
In July 2011, Anne S. Ferro, Administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, told Congress she needs more enforcement powers, including the ability to inspect every long distance bus at least once a year and to conduct surprise safety stops while buses are en route. She proposed paying for the additional enforcement through raising the fee for a company to obtain an operating license from US DOT.
She pointed out, a bus license costs $300 — $50 less than it costs a street vendor to sell hot dogs in Washington, DC. Ferro said she’d also like to see the fine for a bus safety violation raised from $2,000 to $25,000.
Inspections alone are unlikely to solve the problem, she argued. There just aren't enough of them. There are 878 federal and state inspectors able to conduct safety reviews of 765,000 bus and truck companies, or an average of slightly more than one inspector for 1,000 companies, the report said.
For a while it seemed like the tempers had cooled, and the regulators were backing off. Then the crackdown came.
In June 2012, the U.S. DOT shuts down 26 bus companies that operate along the most popular routes for so-called Chinatown buses: the I-95 corridor from New York to Florida. The DOT called it the "largest single safety crackdown in the agency’s history."
Federal safety investigators found multiple violations, including a pattern of drivers without valid commercial licenses and companies that didn't administer alcohol and drug tests to drivers. Ten people – company owners, managers and employees – are ordered to stop all involvement in passenger transportation operations, including selling bus tickets.
The intersection in Chinatown in New York City previously most associated with this class of bus was transformed, no longer a bustling hub roaring with the sound of diesel engines and ticket sellers competing for business with dueling calls of prices and destinations. It became a quiet side street and has remained so since.
What's to Come
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has made safety one of his top issues, is advocating for legislation with stronger teeth.
The Bus Uniform Standards and Enhanced Safety (BUSES) Act of 2011 called for a tighter controls and enforcement of bus driver screening, including calling for federal oversight of state requirements for commercial licenses.
The Motorcoach Safety Act of 2009 was also revisited after the 2011 string of crashes. It requires new buses to add seat belts and reinforced windows that prevent passengers from being ejected during an accident. The bus industry opposed both bills on cost grounds and neither became law.
New York City, which cannot regulate interstate bus safety, took the step to regulate bus stop permitting, giving more control to neighborhood leadership, known as community boards. Since then, there have not been new clusters of curbside buses competing with each other.
And as Chinese-run Chinatown buses remain discreet in New York's Chinatown, mainstream bus companies like Greyhound are expanding their curbside businesses, actively meeting with community boards to add stops in Chinatown itself.
(This report includes excerpts and descriptions from previous reporting on TN, by Alex Goldmark, Jim O'Grady and Tracie Samuelson.)
Thursday, December 06, 2012
New Jersey Transit lost $100 million in trains and equipment during storm Sandy, NJ Transit chief James Weinstein told a U.S. Senate panel Thursday.
The $100 million is part of a $400 million bill Sandy left for NJ Transit. The total includes damage to all 12 rail lines, which suffered flooding and some 630 downed trees. This is the first public accounting of the Sandy-related damage to NJ transit equipment.
The transit agency has been scrutinized in the wake of its decision to store trains during Sandy at two facilities that are in high-risk areas for flooding during hurricanes. By contrast, the New York MTA moved its trains out of Coney Island and Queens, two areas in New York's evacuation zone.
"Based on the information that we had in terms of the likelihood of flooding occurring at the Meadowlands complex, or at the Hoboken yard, that indicated there was a likelihood in the 80 to 90 percent range that no flooding would happen," Weinstein told the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security, chaired by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ).
In 2011, as TN has reported, the Federal Transit Agency issued a study warning transit authorities that storm surge-related climate change would create risks for transit agencies, and exhorted local transit agencies to move their trains out of harm's way during storms. The FTA said the risk of flooding would increase over the years.
But just months ago, NJ Transit specifically rejected a climate change adaptation plan, as the Bergen Record reported this week. "At a symposium of state and federal transportation officials in March, NJ Transit executive David Gillespie said he had told climate-change consultants working for the agency to skip any analysis of potential impacts on train cars and engines," The Record wrote.
By contrast, the NY MTA had developed a climate change adaptation plan and appointed two officials to oversee the MTA's response to hurricanes.
Weinstein maintained NJ Transit had little choice. He said the agency has few options about where to store trains. "That combined with the history led us to conclude that [yards in the Meadowlands and Hoboken were] the appropriate place to put the equipment, based on the information we had at the time we had to make the decision."
In response to a question from Senator Lautenberg, Weinstein said "this was the best decision, especially in light of what happened during Irene." Weinstein said during that storm, NJ Transit stored equipment in Pennsylvania -- where it was stranded as a result of inland flooding and trees falling on the tracks. "That's another factor that informed our decisions," Weinstein said.
"Some of that equipment was new, up-to-date?" Lautenberg interjected.
"Yes, sir," Weinstein responded. "We had some new locomotives that hadn't been accepted yet. Water penetrated up to the axles where the bearings are."
Then Lautenberg tossed Weinstein a lifeline: "It didn't sound like there were other choices to be made," said the senior U.S. Senator from New Jersey -- who, like Weinstein, is in a position of pleading for relief funds from the federal government in the middle of difficult negotiations over tax hikes and spending cuts to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff."
"If you lay a flood plain map over our rail map there are very few places that are not prone to flooding," Weinstein said. "I had 630 trees come down. If that starts coming down on equipment, it damages equipment every bit as badly as flooding would."