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Transportation Nation

WATCH: Superstorm Sandy: The Devastating Impact on the Nation's Largest Transportation Systems

Thursday, December 06, 2012

(The hearings have ended.  Here's our story. Follow along with the live webcast of a Senate subcommittee hearing here . It begins at 10:30 eastern time.

We will be tweeting highlights -- so follow along.

Here's who's on tap to testify.

Witness Panel 1

  • Honorable Charles Schumer
    United States Senator, New York
  • Honorable Robert Menendez
    United States Senator, New Jersey
  • Honorable Kirsten Gillibrand
    United States Senator, New York

Witness Panel 2

  • Mr. John Porcari
    Deputy Secretary
    U.S. Department of Transportation

Witness Panel 3

  • Mr. Joseph Boardman
    President
    National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak)
  • Mr. Joseph Lhota
    Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer
    Metropolitan Transportation Authority
  • Mr. Patrick Foye
    Executive Director
    Port Authority of New York and New Jersey
  • Mr. James Weinstein
    Executive Director
    NJ Transit
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Transportation Nation

Senate Hearing Will Detail Hurricane Sandy's Transit Damage

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The heads of transit agencies affected by Sandy will testify on Capitol Hill Thursday, in what will be the most public assembly of the top brass of the NY MTA, NJ Transit, Amtrak and the Port Authority of NY &NJ in one public place for the first time since the storm.

New Jersey senator Robert Menendez called Hurricane Sandy the "largest mass transit disaster in our nation's history" last week. Thursday's Senate hearing should reveal additional details about the damage and destruction.

The transit agencies of both New York and New Jersey are largely functional -- but none are back at 100 percent. New York's MTA suffered $5 billion worth of damage. One-quarter of New Jersey Transit's passenger rail cars were flooded. And the Port Authority still can't say exactly when its Hoboken PATH train terminal will reopen.

Because so many Northeasterners use transit to commute, Senator Menendez said last week Hurricane Sandy affected 40 percent of the nation's mass transit users.

Thursday's hearing is being chaired by New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg. A spokesman for the senator said "the hearing will allow Senator Lautenberg and his colleagues to further review the devastation to the region's infrastructure and move forward rebuilding New Jersey's transportation systems so they're stronger and better prepared to handle the next storm."

One question expected to come up: why New Jersey Transit parked so many rail cars in an area that had been predicted to flood.

Lawmakers from both states are eager to receive federal disaster relief. New Jersey estimates that it suffered $37 billion worth of damage; New York is requesting $42 billion in aid.

We'll be live tweeting the hearing, which starts at 10:30am. Follow along on @TransportNation.

 

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Transportation Nation

New Yorkers Believe Climate Change Caused Hurricane Sandy: Poll

Monday, December 03, 2012

Areas of Long Island, N.Y. following Hurricane Sandy Oct. 30, 2012. (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard / Petty Officer 2nd Class Rob Simpson)

Most New Yorkers say climate change is the reason for severe storms like Hurricane Sandy.

According to a recent Siena poll, at least 63 percent of voters from across the state -- including two-thirds of upstate residents and three-quarters of those in New York City – say severe storms over the last two years demonstrate the existence of global climate change.

"There may be a debate about what has caused the global climate change," says Siena pollster Steven Greenberg, "but for most New Yorkers there is no debate that it is occurring.”

That mirrors national numbers. In a pre-Sandy poll conducted in October by the Pew Research Center, 67 percent of respondents said they believed in global warming.

But the issue reveals a stark partisan divide. In the Siena poll, eight in ten Democrats say severe storms demonstrated climate change -- whereas Republicans are nearly evenly divided, with 46 percent saying climate change is behind big storms and 44 percent calling them isolated weather events. The Pew poll found similar national numbers.

(Two New Yorkers who believe in climate change: Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The latter said it was the prime force behind his endorsement of  President Obama for reelection. And the governor is likely to be talking about it as he makes the rounds in D.C. to push for disaster aid.)

But as politicians, these two are outliers. Neither Obama nor Republican Mitt Romney mentioned climate change during the presidential debates. A Frontline documentary that aired in October provides some thoughts as to why: climate skeptics have worked hard to introduce doubt into the conversation surrounding the climate change debate -- successfully making it a partisan issue.

Watch Climate of Doubt on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

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Transportation Nation

Hurricane Sandy was "Largest Mass Transit Disaster in our Nation's History," Says Senator

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Snapped catenary poles on NJ Transit's Gladstone line (photo courtesy of NJ Transit)

At an emotional hearing today before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, senators representing storm-damaged states described the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy.

Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) said his state was the "epicenter" of the storm. He listed Sandy's toll upon New Jersey -- 39 dead, 231,000 homes and businesses damaged. And included in his list: the impact of the storm upon the region's transit system.

"The storm was the largest mass transit disaster in our nation's history. Four out of 10 of the nation's transit riders had their commutes disrupted by the storm, many still today," said Menendez. "NJ Transit alone had dozens of locomotives and rail cars damaged in the flooding and miles and miles of tracks damaged."

NJ Transit still has a rail line that is not operational, and the Port Authority says it will be weeks before it can restore Hoboken service on its trans-Hudson PATH train line.

New Jersey is requesting $37 billion in federal disaster aid, of which $1.35 billion would go to transit, roads and bridges.

Watch the archived hearing here.

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Transportation Nation

Build Highways or Increase Transit? Planners Tackle Fort Meade Traffic

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Fort Meade is home to a number of defense organizations, including the National Security Agency, and most workers commute by car. (Photo courtesy of NSA.gov)

Planners are looking for ways to improve the commute for the more than 56,000 people currently working at Fort Meade in central Maryland.

A top transportation planner at Fort Meade says there are a couple possible strategies to consider to reduce regional traffic congestion. One would be to build major highways at an estimated cost of $50 billion over 25 years. A second option is to use "transportation demand management," which is another way of saying increasing car pooling, rail and bus use.

Howard Jennings is a researcher at Arlington (VA)-based Mobility Lab, which specializes in commuter services. He says a multi-pronged approach is more feasible and less expensive than laying down miles of asphalt.

"Experience has shown that over the years if you build a highway, usually it is going to fill up in just a few years, and we can cite many examples of that," says Jennings.

The Fort Meade workforce has grown from 35,000 to 56,000 over the last ten years -- three times the size of the Pentagon -- and will grow more as its new Cyber Command mission gains traction.

Jennings favors the "transportation demand" approach, which also includes encourages more telecommuting. Add all these measures up, and Jennings says there will be significantly fewer single-occupant vehicles on the roads around Fort Meade.

"Peoples' commutes are very individualized," says Jennings. "There is no one-size-fits-all. We find that when offering up options to people, they will self-select what will work for them."

Jennings says what would work near Fort Meade, where the typical commuter now travels 20 miles alone in a car, would work around any of the region's 20 major job centers that hold 40 percent of the region's jobs.

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Transportation Nation

NY Gov. Cuomo: It's Going to Cost $5 Billion To Repair the MTA, Post-Sandy

Monday, November 26, 2012

On Monday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo huddled with the state's congressional delegation to go over his federal disaster aid request. "This state has suffered mightily," he said. (Watch the press conference, above.)

As in $42 billion worth of mightily.

Howard Glaser, a senior policy advisor to the governor, broke that figure down at a press conference. The number to restore transit, roads, and bridges, was "very big," he said, and "the big piece there is the MTA."

Glaser said the damage to the transit agency totalled $4.8 billion. "That's damage to the tunnels, to the rail system, to the subway system. This amount of money, the 4.8 (billion), would just restore it to where it was before the storm," he said, adding that "the signal systems in many of the tunnels have to be completely replaced, for example, and that's a lot of money."

(To put that number in perspective, that's about a year's worth of the agency's capital budget.)

At a committee meeting earlier Monday, the MTA tallied up what it said was a "not exhaustive" list of damages -- including flooding to under-river tunnels, subway stations, and track washouts, but didn't include a cost breakdown.

Read New York State's breakdown of Hurricane Sandy recovery needs here.

 

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Transportation Nation

Fed Study Warned Transit Agencies of Flooding Potential

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

(Nancy Solomon, New Jersey Public Radio) A year before storm Sandy, federal officials warned transit agencies to get their trains out of flood zones in advance of severe storms.  But New Jersey Transit, the nation's third largest transit agency, didn't heed that advice.

Maps produced in 2009 by the Army Corps of Engineers, taking into account storm dynamics and shoreline elevation, showed NJ Transit's rail yards well within potential flood zones for a Category 1 or larger hurricane.

Even as New York's MTA was moving subway and commuter trains to higher ground, NJ Transit parked valuable trains squarely in the middle of known potential flood zones for a Category 1 hurricane -- the equivalent of New York City's evacuation "Zone A." While the MTA had much of its system up and running within a week,  NJ Transit has taken much longer.

A spokesman for Governor Chris Christie says the trains were stored in in places that had never been inundated before. "You can prepare for a worst-case scenario," the spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said.  But, he added "the standard of preparedness was definitely raised by this storm."

In an interview with the NJ Star-Ledger published Wednesday, NJ Transit officials maintained the trains were stored where they "should be."

A year earlier, however, the Federal Transit Agency had distributed a report on climate change adaptation called "Flooded Bus Barns and Buckled Rails."  The study warned transit agencies to prepare for worsening storms and floods. New Jersey Transit has not released a detailed accounting,  but Reuters has reported damage to trains could cost tens of millions of dollars.

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Transportation Nation

Poll Captures Storm Surge Of Positive Feelings For NY MTA, Gas Rationing

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

NY MTA chairman Joe Lhota, flanked by NY Governor Andrew Cuomo and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, looking pleased while announcing the re-opening of a flooded tunnel last week.(photo by Jim O'Grady / WNYC)

(New York, NY - WNYC) Poll results show that Superstorm Sandy has remade two kinds of landscapes in New York: physical and psychological. Beachfront is gone, trees are uprooted and whole communities have been forcibly rearranged by a monster tide. No less dramatically, a majority of New Yorkers are expressing love not only for their elected officials but everyone's favorite bureaucratic whipping boy, the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

You read that correctly.

The latest Quinnipiac University poll finds 75 percent of New Yorkers rated the authority's performance during and after Sandy at "excellent" or "good." That's better than the Red Cross's 66 percent approval rating, and the dismal 37 percent approval for the region's utility companies, which struggled at times to bring the power back.

NY MTA chairman Joe Lhota was highly visible in the days and weeks following the storm as his workers methodically pumped out no less than seven under-river tunnels and, one by one, got them back to carrying trains and vehicular traffic.

The NY MTA also showed a fair degree of nimbleness by running shuttle buses over cross-river bridges until the subways were dried out. (Taking a cue, the NY Department of Transportation today announced its plan to run a temporary ferry from the hard-hit South Shore of Staten Island to Manhattan.) And the authority captured the public imagination with an online map that showed the the subway recovering in real time.

The Quinnipiac poll, which surveyed more than 1,000 registered voters in New York, also reported that Mayor Bloomberg's odd-even gas rationing system won favor by 85 to 12 percent. Other winners: President Obama, New York Governor Cuomo and, with the best numbers, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. See the full results here.

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Transportation Nation

DC Airports Executives Grilled on Capitol Hill

Monday, November 19, 2012

DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel (L) and MWAA vice chairman Tom Davis (photo by Martin DiCaro)

Top officials at the agency in charge of the $6 billion Silver Line testified before a U.S. House oversight committee on Friday after an audit exposed its unethical hiring, travel, and contracting practices.

Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee grilled MWAA Board Chairman Michael Curto and CEO Jack Potter about personal roles and agency policies in the granting of no-bid contracts and the rampant nepotism detailed in the audit.  The chair of the house committee, John Mica, called the agency a "poster child for corrupt practices." While acknowledging the agency's missteps, both men pointed to recent measures designed to overhaul MWAA's ethics, travel, and contracting practices.

An audit released earlier this month by the Department of Transportation's Inspector General took the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority for "ambiguous policies and ineffectual controls." In addition to overseeing the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project, the MWAA also manages Dulles and Reagan National Airports.

Curto and Potter also said many of the transgressions outlined in the audit took place before they assumed their current positions.

There were, however, cases that directly involved them: the law firm that employed Curto's wife was granted a $100,000 no-bid contract to provide legal counsel.  Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards (D-4th) asked Curto to explain how such a large contract could be awarded without the approval of the board of directors.

"I was not chairman at the time. I was not on the legal committee at the time. The general counsel for the authority made the decision to retain the law firm. My wife at the time was an employee at that law firm... she had no direct or indirect financial interest in the law firm," said Curto, who said in retrospect the contract should not have been granted on a no-bid basis. "Although it wasn't an actual conflict of interest it certainly was an appearance of a conflict of interest," he said.

Potter was questioned about the hiring of former MWAA board member Mame Reiley to a job created for specifically for her at an annual salary of $180,000 without proper vetting or board approval.

"My judgement was not good in terms of the hiring of that person," said Potter, who said the creation of the job was necessary to meet the challenges created by rising costs at Dulles International.  Rep. Edwards asked the officials if they should remain in their positions given the agency's record.

"I would hope so," Curto said, pointing to the measures MWAA has approved to revamp its ethics, travel, and contracting policies as well as terminate contracts granted to former or current board members.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood testified that MWAA has indeed revamped its policies, adding that its leaders understand reforms must be successful if the agency is going to receive additional federal funding to pay for the Silver Line, whose first phase of construction is scheduled for completion late next year.

"Phase I has worked pretty well. It really has. I think Phase II will work equally well because when you talk to these folks now in charge of MWAA, a new CEO and president, a relatively new chairman, they get it," said LaHood.  "These people get it.  They do. They know this has to be done correctly."

"They have pending before us a TIFIA loan. We're not going to give them a TIFIA loan if they are not doing things correctly.  They know that," added LaHood, referring to the federal loan program for major transportation projects.

In August, LaHood sent the MWAA a blistering letter questioning the board’s ethics and laying out steps the authority must take to get in line.

Phase II construction of the Silver Line is supposed to begin next year.

Watch a video of Friday's hearing here.

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Transportation Nation

MWAA Votes to Raise Fees on Dulles Toll Road

Thursday, November 15, 2012

(photo by bankbryan via flickr)

The agency managing the largest public rail expansion in the nation voted to increase tolls on a Virginia highway in part to help fund construction of the Silver Line.

On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority unanimously approved raising the full, one-way toll on the Dulles Toll Road to $2.75 effective January 1, an increase of $.50.  In January 2014 toll will increase to $3.50.

The toll increases are a major part of the financing plan for the Silver Line extension to Dulles International Airport, a 23-mile, $5.5 billion project whose first phase is scheduled for completion late next year. The MWAA board put off a decision to increase tolls again in 2015 because of the possibility of obtaining additional state and/or federal dollars.

MWAA has two avenues to secure additional funds: Virginia’s General Assembly, which has provided only $150 million to date, and the federal TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) loan program.

“Our project is, bar none, (one) of the more worthy projects in the country for TIFIA loan financing,” said MWAA Board Chairman Michael Curto in remarks to reporters after the agency’s vote. “We’ve seen the enhanced TIFIA loan program so we’re positioned well, given that the project is shovel ready.  We’re ready to move."

Curto is not the only public official who has expressed optimism a federal loan with come through.  However, MWAA has a lot of competition for TIFIA dollars. Nineteen major transportation projects totaling $27 billion are currently applying for loans, and Congress has authorized $1.75 billion for TIFIA the next two fiscal years.

“The pool is very small compared to what the needs are just for our rail system,” said Terry Maynard, a board member of the Reston Citizens Association, which represents 58,000 residents in a Fairfax County tax district.  “It's going to be very hard to get a significant contribution.”

The association opposes not the Silver Line’s construction but its financing plan, which leaves fifty percent of the entire project’s cost on Dulles Toll Road users (75 percent of Phase II).

“We really want this to get built and succeed,” Maynard said. “We are pressing that all the money [MWAA] receives relieve the burden on toll road users.” Fairfax County residents have relayed their concerns to MWAA that drivers looking to avoid higher tolls will opt for already congested secondary roads, further clogging their communities with traffic.

Curto promised that MWAA will lobby Richmond for additional funding. He declined to criticize the McDonnell administration’s spending priorities, which have seen hundreds of millions of dollars allocated for highway expansions.

“We are going to reach out, work closely and hope to encourage the governor’s administration and the folks in Richmond that Dulles Rail should be the recipient of additional funds.  As Secretary LaHood said, it is a model project,” Curto said.

 

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Crucial East River Tunnel In NYC Now Half-Open

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

NY Governor Cuomo, NY MTA Chief Joe Lhota and US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announce partial opening of Hugh Carey Tunnel in NYC. (photo by Jim O'Grady)

(New York, NY - WNYC) Cars can now use one of the two tubes of the Hugh Carey Tunnel, formerly the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, in New York.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, who held a press conference at the mouth of the tunnel with NY MTA chief Joe Lhota and US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, said crews have worked around the clock to repair Sandy damage.

"When you saw this tunnel just a week ago, it was filled with water floor to ceiling," he recalled. "It defied belief, what was in this tunnel. And now 15 days later, one of the tubes will open."

Cuomo said both tubes of the 1.7 mile tunnel--the longest vehicular under-river crossing in North America--were flooded with 43 million gallons of debris-laden seawater that damaged electrical, lighting, communications, surveillance and ventilation systems.

The eastern tube -- the one usually dedicated to vehicles traveling from Brooklyn to Lower Manhattan -- is now open to Brooklyn-bound cars and buses for the evening commute from 3 pm to 7.  Friday morning, it will be open for Manhattan-bound traffic during the morning rush between 6 and 10. No trucks are allowed for now.

The governor said the western tunnel suffered worse damage and will not be open for another "few weeks." With both tubes in operation, the tunnel normally carries 50,000 vehicles on an average weekday.

Cuomo is asking the federal government for $30 billion in disaster aid, including $3.5 billion to repair the metropolitan area's bridges, tunnels and subway and commuter rail lines. That request is pending. In the meantime, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is pitching in with $10 million from the highway trust fund.

At the press conference, LaHood explained: "I’m here because the president has said to us, 'Get to New York. Do what you can, when you can do it, as often as you can do it. Take your cues form the governor.'" He said the $10 million request was approved in two hours, before implying that President Obama will come bearing many more relief funds when he visits New York on Thursday.

When a reporter asked the governor whether the U.S. Department of Transportation could cover the whole price tag for the state's recovery from Sandy, Cuomo deadpanned to LaHood, "You don’t have $30 billion dollars, do you?" The answer was, no.

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Transportation Nation

Top Transpo Congressman, John Mica, Mulls Next Move

Friday, November 09, 2012

Shovel Ready: Congressman John Mica talks to reporters at the groundbreaking ceremony for a new intermodal rail terminal in Winter Haven, Florida (Photo by Matthew Peddie)

(Orlando, Fla. -- WMFE) John Mica, the chair of the U.S. House Transportation Committee, joined with Florida Governor Rick Scott and other business leaders and elected officials near Winter Haven Thursday, for the symbolic groundbreaking of a new intermodal rail terminal.

Before grabbing one of the gold painted shovels, Mica, a republican from Winter Park, Fla. praised the governor for his business savvy and leadership in supporting the project, which will serve as a distribution hub for trains and trucks delivering cargo throughout Florida. The project came about after rail company CSX reroute freight traffic from 62 miles of track to accommodate the SunRail commuter train.

"We are very fortunate to have Governor Scott with his business background at this time and his vision for transportation and infrastructure," said Mica.

"You cannot build this state or this community or projects like this without people like Governor Scott."

Florida Governor Rick Scott, CSX Chief Executive Michael Ward and US House Transportation Comittee Chair John Mica (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Mica and Scott have not always seen eye to eye on big transportation projects in Florida, notably on the failed high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando, which the Governor nixed early in 2011 by rejecting $2.4 billion dollars in Federal stimulus money. At the time Mica panned the Governor's decision, labeling it a setback for the state's transportation, economic development and tourism.

While the high-speed rail plans collapsed, there's evidence to suggest Mica may have -indirectly- helped Central Florida's SunRail Commuter train avoid a similar fate during his tenure as chair of the house transportation and infrastructure committee.

Mica lists the two year Highway Transportation bill and the FAA bill as  accomplishments during his chairmanship, but he says those came about in spite of the Obama administration.

Looking ahead to a second Obama administration, Mica said he hopes the president will work better with Congress on transportation issues this time around. "They've been absent without leave," said Mica. "I’m hoping that their second time around they’ll be more cooperative."

Advocates for increased transportation and infrastructure spending have lauded President Obama's stimulus plan and his advocacy of a national rail network.

Mica, who comfortably staved off a Democratic challenger to retain his seat in Florida's U.S. House District 7 Tuesday, is due to be termed out of his role as chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. However he says he'd like to hang onto the position if possible.

“Oh we’ll see," he said. "It depends on whether they grant waivers or not, and that’s yet to be decided.”

"I’ve been honored to chair for the last 2 years, ranking for four years, chaired a sub committee for six years, and I intend to be a leader in whatever capacity my colleagues choose,” said Mica, who's also in line for other potential committee chairmanships.

"But I’m not moving from transportation even if I took another slot,” said Mica, who added he intends to be in a key position to make decisions on transportation policy.

Republican Congressman Bill Shuster of Penn. has already expressed an interest in the committee chair position.

Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad was also pondering the implications of the second Obama term. Prasad said it's important that there's leadership at the Federal level and that members of congress can work together to craft a long term highway transportation bill.

"I just hope we can get to a deal," said Prasad.

"The last deal was only two years, and partly because I think folks in congress wanted to get past this election... Now that the election's over, let’s not wait another two years to get another two year bill, let’s work next year and have a long term bill that creates a transportation vision for the country.”

Historically transportation funding bills were non-partisan bills approved for six years at a time to facilitate planning of longer term projects. For more on how that changed this Congress, read our previous coverage.

 

 

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Transportation Nation

PHOTOS: The Last Ride for Shuttle Atlantis

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Atlantis leaves the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center (photo by Matthew Peddie)

(Orlando, Fla. -- WMFE) NASA has officially signed the last remaining space shuttle at the Kennedy Space Center into retirement.

Riding on a flat bed transporter, Atlantis rolled out of the Vehicle Assembly Building at dawn Friday, bound for its new home at a purpose-built display hall nearly 10 miles away at the privately operated Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

A few hours later a crowd of shuttle workers and their families gathered for a retirement ceremony. NASA administrator Charles Bolden, who flew on Atlantis in 1992, said while the shuttle program has ended, its spirit lives on.

“It’s now NASA’s honor to permanently house this magnificent spacecraft right here, where she rose to the skies 33 times carrying 156 men and women," said Bolden.

"She’s truly a testament to American ingenuity.”

The commanders of both Atlantis’ first mission and the last ever shuttle flight last year also talked about the significance of the program.

Contractors watch as Atlantis moves away from the VAB (photo by Matthew Peddie)

The shuttle travels on a diesel powered 76 wheel transporter (photo by Matthew Peddie)

The cab of the orbiter transporter (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Photographers watch as Atlantis rolls out (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Shuttle Atlantis traveled nearly 10 miles by road to its new home, mostly on NASA property. Engineers removed some traffic lights and street signs to allow the shuttle through (Photo by Matthew Peddie)

Atlantis paused at an intersection as a NASA helicopter circles overhead (photo by Matthew Peddie)

A marching band leads Atlantis into its retirement ceremony (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Shuttle program employees and their families watched the final rollout of Atlantis (photo by Matthew Peddie)

“Atlantis’s final mission may have closed out the space shuttle program, but the spirit that created that program and built her is very much alive as we develop the technologies and systems not only for private companies to serve our needs in low earth orbit, but to keep us on the road to an asteroid, to mars and places beyond." NASA administrator Charles Bolden (photo by Matthew Peddie)

 

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Why Sandy Emergency Aid Is for Roads, Not Subways, Buses: Congress

Friday, November 02, 2012

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in Newark, hours after workers finished pumping water from the city's light rail line.  (Photo by Anna Sale)

(Anna Sale, Newark, NJ -- WNYC) The federal Department of Transportation announced $12 million in emergency highway funds for Connecticut and New Jersey on Friday. New Jersey gets the bulk: $10 million.

That money will pay for road repair. Ray LaHood, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, says none of the aid money will pay to fix the stalled transit system in New Jersey, which is coping with washed away track, broken equipment and even a pile of boats stuck on top of a drawbridge. (Slideshow)

"They tried to get an emergency transit fund established, but it hasn't been funded," LaHood said of Democrats in Congress.

New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez supported emergency transit funding in Washington, but says it was blocked by Senate Republicans. He says Sandy’s paralyzing effects on regional transit could alter the politics of transit funding in Washington. “Maybe when we go back and we can make the case, see this is what we were talking about when we were trying to get you to agree. Agree now to give us an appropriation for this amount.”

New Jersey’s two U.S. senators joined Secretary LaHood on a tour of a flooded light rail line at Newark’s Penn Station on Friday. The last water had been pumped from the muddy tracks just hours before, and the extent of the electrical damage was still not clear. New Jersey Transit has not released an estimate or timetable for restoring service, earlier telling Transportation Nation the damage had been "unprecedented" and "crippling."

Secretary LaHood says it will be a busy weekend of repairs, but transit riders may still have to wait to resume their normal routines. “Be patient," he said. "We are doing all we can to make sure that people can be delivered to work on Monday in this region. Not just in New Jersey, but in this region. Whatever requests were received for additional buses, we’ve provided.”

Some of those buses will begin running between New Jersey park-and-ride locations and Hudson River ferries as early as Monday, New Jersey Transit announced. NJ Transit rail service along the Northeast Corridor will began connecting Trenton to New York City late Friday night.

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Transportation Nation

Audit Exposes Litany of Shady Dealings by Agency Running D.C. Area Airports

Friday, November 02, 2012

Accepting two tickets to the Super Bowl.  Hiring relatives. Awarding no-bid contracts worth millions.

The agency that operates Dulles International and Reagan National Airports and the $6 billion Silver Line rail project engaged in unethical hiring and questionable contracting practices and its officials accepted lavish gifts in violation of the agency's own policies – all enabled by a “culture of favoritism” and lacking internal checks – according to an audit released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general.

The audit detailed questionable dealings at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority from January 2009 to June 2011. During that period, MWAA awarded 190 contracts that exceeded $200,000 but only 36 percent were awarded with full and open competition, the audit said. These contract awards failed to comply with MWAA’s own contracting manual and were inconsistent with the intent of the Airports Act of 1986, the audit said.

MWAA’s hiring practices were also criticized. “In some cases, senior officials abused MWAA’s student program to hire employees who were not students, using personnel documentation that falsely showed student status. MWAA’s lack of oversight also resulted in employees with known criminal convictions working at the Authority in sensitive and management positions for more than a year,” the audit said.

While the audit did not name names, it named positions. For instance, MWAA’s Vice President for Human Resources hired two relatives to work at the agency and then denied it. The vice president, Arl Williams, resigned in advance of the audit’s release.

While Williams’ individual behavior was troublesome, the problems at MWAA also resulted in structural deficiencies.

"According to MWAA’s ethics code, MWAA employees may not hire, supervise, or work with family members. However, MWAA lacks controls to detect and prevent these prohibited relationships… which makes it difficult to determine whether the relationship would constitute nepotism…” the audit said.

MWAA’s vice president for information and telecommunications, George Ellis, received two tickets to the 2009 Super Bowl among other expensive gifts from a contractor in clear violation of established MWAA policy. Ellis was fired in the spring.

In another case mentioned by auditors, a former board member, Mame Reilly, was hired by MWAA CEO Jack Potter to fill a vaguely defined position for an annual salary of $180,000.  Reilly stepped down after a public outcry but was paid a year’s severance. Neither Reilly nor Potter was mentioned by name. None of the contractors who received lucrative no-bid contracts was named, either.

The 51-page report is loaded with examples of contracting practices that, while not explicitly illegal, raise serious questions about decision making at the powerful agency.  One unnamed former board member received 16 no-bid contracts. The MWAA board of directors was not consulted about any no-bid contracts that totaled $6 million dollars.

The DOT auditors closed their report by issuing twelve recommendations while acknowledging that MWAA has already taken steps to overhaul its policies and put in place internal checks.

At a press conference Thursday afternoon, Potter and MWAA board chairman Michael Curto addressed the audit’s findings, promising to work to regain the public’s trust while defending their record in handling the 23-mile Silver Line project.

“We are gratified that the final report acknowledges the actions we have taken since the May Interim Report, as well as our ongoing initiatives, to bring greater transparency and accountability, efficiency, and integrity to our operations and governance,” Curto said.

“We are extremely transparent,” said Potter, referring to the rail project. “There is definitely a firewall between the toll road and rail project and the authority.”

“There is work to be done,” added Potter. “I see it as my job that we restore the trust in this institution through very solid policies.  I’ll be embarrassed if two years from now these same things are a problem.”

 

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Transportation Nation

Explainer: The Jones Act

Friday, November 02, 2012

Waiting on line to pay cash for gas to fill gas cans at the Hess station on Union St. and 4th Ave. in Brooklyn (photo by Amy Pearl)

To ease widespread gas shortages in the Northeast, the federal government has temporarily lifted a restriction on foreign fuel tankers.

The Jones Act (pdf) -- formerly known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 -- was originally intended to ensure that the U.S. has a strong merchant marine during times of war. It also prohibits foreign ships from touching two U.S. ports consecutively -- meaning all goods that move between two domestic ports must do so on ships that are U.S. flagged and staffed.

The waiver means tankers that would otherwise be barred can immediately begin shipping petroleum products from the Gulf of Mexico to the Northeast.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, "it is either essential for national security or a vast barnacle on the hull of U.S. growth, depending on your point of view." Bob Parrish, the president of the Maritime Law Association of the United States, told TN the Jones Act is "really a deep subject that's been debated."

At a press conference Friday morning, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the waiver was necessary to speed delivery of fuel to area ports. Soon after, the Department of Homeland Security released a statement that read, in part: "As a result of impacts caused by Hurricane Sandy, today Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano issued a temporary, blanket waiver of the Jones Act to immediately allow additional oil tankers coming from the Gulf of Mexico to enter Northeastern ports, to provide additional fuel resources to the region...Secretary Napolitano's action immediately allows additional ships, that would otherwise be barred, to begin shipping petroleum products from the Gulf of Mexico to Northeastern ports, increasing the access to fuel in the storm damaged region."

Also on Friday, Cuomo signed an executive order allowing distributors and transporters to bring gasoline, diesel, and kerosene into New York without having to meet the usual registration requirements. "I don’t like to waive the tax, I don’t want to lose the money," he said, "but we do want to accelerate the flow of gasoline."

The waiver of the Jones Act lasts through November 13.

 

 

 

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Transportation Nation

PHOTOS: Hurricane Damage Devastates NJ Transit

Thursday, November 01, 2012


The totality of the damage done to New Jersey Transit by Hurricane Sandy can't be fully ascertained at this point, but the list on the agency's website is daunting.

Rail lines have suffered catastrophically: washouts, downed trees, waterlogged equipment, and track damage. The iconic Hoboken Ferry Terminal is flooded. The agency reports that even the Rail Operations Center--"the central nervous system of the railroad"--is engulfed in water. Although most bus service returned Thursday, nine of its bus garages continue to operate on back-up generator power. And in a letter requesting federal aid, Senators Lautenberg and Menendez write: "the only passenger rail tunnel into New York City—which connects thousands of people to the city each day—is shut down."

Earlier this week, Governor Christie said it could take seven to 10 days to resume PATH train service.

There is no timeline for resumption of rail service. The agency says it is continuing to inspect the system and that "the blow delivered by Hurricane Sandy will continue to impact customers for days to come."

 

 

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Transportation Nation

From The Archives: Big Storms, Climate Change Imperil Transit

Friday, October 26, 2012

As Hurricane Sandy approaches, we thought of this, our story from a year ago,  in which we reported that if the storm surge had been just a foot higher during Hurricane Irene, New York's east river subway tunnels would have been flooded.   An alarming prospect, but one the federal government warns could be increasingly common -- and costly.

Here's the story:

On the Sunday after Tropical Storm Irene blasted through the five boroughs of New York City, the city exhaled. Huge swaths of Manhattan hadn’t flooded, high winds hadn’t caused widespread damage. Perhaps no one was as relieved as then-MTA CEO Jay Walder, who had just taken the unprecedented step of shutting down the entire transit system.

“The worst fear that we had, which was that the under-river tunnels on the East River would flood with salt water, were not realized. We certainly dodged something there,” Walder said at a post-Irene briefing with city officials.

What the city dodged was the ghost of climate change future — higher sea levels, intense storms, and elevated amounts of precipitation, all of which could combine to cause widespread flooding of the subway system.

Here's the full story:

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Transportation Nation

California Greenhouse Gas Law Faces Challenge

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

(photo by Kevin Dooley via flickr)

(KALW - San Francisco) The future of California’s landmark greenhouse gas emissions law is being called into question.

Implementation of the law was delayed earlier this year by a U.S. District Court judge in Fresno, who ruled that the regulations violate the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. A three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments from both sides of the debate last week.

At issue is the “Low Carbon Standard”—regulations that require fuel producers to meet California’s emissions standards, or pay a penalty in the state’s cap and trade system. Fuel, farm and trucking industry lawyers argue that the law violates the federal commerce clause because the law reaches across state borders, effectively favoring California-based producers over out-of-state competitors, whose fuel may not meet the state’s strict emission requirements.

The California Air Resources Board, the agency responsible for implementing the regulations, says the law is intended to reduce California’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990s levels by the year 2020. Lawyers representing the state and environmental groups argue that the California law is the only way to reach these goals.

Sean Donahue, an Environmental Defense Fund attorney who presented oral arguments to the appeals court, said that at its core, the law is about regulating greenhouse gas emissions by focusing on the entire life cycle of the fuel. “It’s not based on where the fuel is from, but is based on the effect on the climate,” Donahue said.

Peter Keisler, a fuel industry attorney, told the court, “Even if there is no discrimination, you still have a regulatory scheme whose purpose is to penalize imports, to penalize out-of-state conduct in an effort to control in-state emissions.”

The three-judge panel asked tough questions during the appeal, including a focus on language in the law that seemed to point to favoring California employment and tax revenues.

"Isn’t this unambiguous evidence that the board was motivated by protectionism?” asked 9th Circuit Court Judge Mary Murguia.

The panel now moves on to consider the oral and written arguments in the case before issuing a written opinion, a process that could take many months.

 

 

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Transportation Nation

TSA Removes X-Ray Body Scanners From Major Airports

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Transportation Security Administration volunteer demonstrates a full-body scanner at O'Hare International Airport on March 15, 2010 in Chicago. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

(Michael Grabell, ProPublica) The Transportation Security Administration has been quietly removing its X-ray body scanners from major airports over the last few weeks and replacing them with machines that radiation experts believe are safer.

The TSA says it made the decision not because of safety concerns but to speed up checkpoints at busier airports. It means, though, that far fewer passengers will be exposed to radiation because the X-ray scanners are being moved to smaller airports.

The backscatters, as the X-ray scanners are known, were swapped out at Boston Logan International Airport in early October. Similar replacements have occurred at Los Angeles International Airport, Chicago O'Hare, Orlando and John F. Kennedy in New York, the TSA confirmed Thursday.

The X-ray scanners have faced a barrage of criticism since the TSA began rolling them out nationwide after the failed underwear bombing on Christmas Day 2009. One reason is that they emit a small dose of ionizing radiation, which at higher levels has been linked to cancer.

In addition, privacy advocates decried that the machines produce images, albeit heavily blurred, of passengers' naked bodies. Each image must be reviewed by a TSA officer, slowing security lines.

The replacement machines, known as millimeter-wave scanners, rely on low-energy radio waves similar to those used in cell phones. The machines detect potential threats automatically and quickly using a computer program. They display a generic cartoon image of a person's body, mitigating privacy concerns.

"They're not all being replaced," TSA spokesman David Castelveter said. "It's being done strategically. We are replacing some of the older equipment and taking them to smaller airports. That will be done over a period of time."

He said the TSA decided to move the X-ray machines to less-busy airports after conducting an analysis of processing time and staffing requirements at the airports where the scanners are installed.

The radiation risk and privacy concerns had no bearing on the decision, Castelveter said.

Asked about the changes, John Terrill, a spokesman for Rapiscan 2014 which makes the X-ray scanners 2014 wrote in an email, "No comment on this."

The TSA is not phasing out X-ray body scanners altogether. The backscatter machines are still used for screening at a few of America's largest 25 airports, but the TSA has not confirmed which ones. Last week, Gateway Airport in Mesa, Ariz., installed two of the machines.

Moreover, in late September, the TSA awarded three companies potential contracts worth up to $245 million for the next generation of body scanners 2014 and one of the systems, made by American Science & Engineering, uses backscatter X-ray technology.

The United States remains one of the only countries in the world to X-ray passengers for airport screening. The European Union prohibited the backscatters last year "in order not to risk jeopardizing citizens' health and safety," according to a statement at the time. The last scanners were removed from Manchester Airport in the United Kingdom last month.

Here's a side-by-side comparison of the two types of body scanners the TSA uses.

The X-ray scanner looks like two blue refrigerator-sized boxes. Unseen to the passenger, a thin beam scans left and right and up and down. The rays reflect back to the scanner, creating an image of the passenger's body and any objects hidden under his or her clothes.

The millimeter-wave scanner looks like a round glass booth. Two rotating antennas circle the passenger, emitting radio frequency waves. Instead of creating a picture of the passenger's body, a computer algorithm looks for anomalies and depicts them as yellow boxes on a cartoon image of the body.

According to many studies, including a new one conducted by the European Union, the radiation dose from the X-ray scanner is extremely small. It has been repeatedly measured to be less than the dose received from cosmic radiation during two minutes of the airplane flight.

Using those measurements, radiation experts have studied the cancer risk, with estimates ranging from six to 100 additional cancer cases among the 100 million people who fly every year. Many scientists say that is trivial, considering that those same 100 million people would develop 40 million cancers over the course of their lifetimes. And others, including the researchers who did the EU study, have said that so much is unknown about low levels of radiation that such estimates shouldn't be made.

Still, the potential risks have led some prominent scientists to argue that the TSA is unnecessarily endangering the public because it has an alternative 2014 the millimeter-wave machine 2014 which it also deems highly effective at finding explosives.

"Why would we want to put ourselves in this uncertain situation where potentially we're going to have some cancer cases?" David Brenner, director of Columbia University's Center for Radiological Research, told ProPublica last year. "It makes me think, really, why don't we use millimeter waves when we don't have so much uncertainty?"

Although there has been some doubt about the long-term safety of the type of radio frequency waves used in the millimeter-wave machines, scientists say that, in contrast to X-rays, such waves have no known mechanism to damage DNA and cause cancer.

The TSA has said that having both technologies encourages competition, leading to better detection capabilities at a lower cost.

But tests in Europe and Australia suggest the millimeter-wave machines have some drawbacks. They were found to have a high false-alarm rate, ranging from 23 percent to 54 percent when figures have been released. Even common things such as folds in clothing and sweat have triggered the alarm.

In contrast, Manchester Airport officials told ProPublica that the false-alarm rate for the backscatter was less than 5 percent.

No study comparing the two machines' effectiveness has been released. The TSA says its own results are classified.

Each week, the agency reports on various knives, powdered drugs and even an explosives detonator used for training that have been found by the body scanners.

But Department of Homeland Security investigators reported last year that they had "identified vulnerabilities" with both types of machines. And House transportation committee chairman John Mica, R-Fla., who has seen the results, has called the scanners "badly flawed."

 

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