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

Leaders to Negotiators: Make One Last Push on Transportation Bill

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Congressional leaders told negotiators involved in faltering transportation bill talks to bear down and make an agreement.

That was the message transmitted by lawmakers emerging from a meeting at Speaker John Boehner's Capitol offices on Tuesday afternoon. Chief GOP negotiator Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told lawmakers to "redouble our efforts" to try and reach an agreement by the end of this week.

Mica suggested negotiations are entering a final, critical stage. Other lawmakers have suggested that a six-month extension of current surface transportation policy will have to be drafted to prevent highway programs from shutting down June 30, when federal authority to spend money from the Highway Trust Fund expires.

"We're going to take it hour by hour," Mica said.

Mica said Boxer had offered new Senate proposals in the talks. But a House GOP leadership aide suggested Democrats have been unwilling to move far off of policy positions contained in the Senate bill, which passed in March with 74 votes.

Follow Todd Zwillich on Twitter @toddzwillich


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Transportation Nation

Negotiators Kick Off Highway Bill Conference; Boxer Warns "Failure Is Not An Option"

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

(Photo (cc) by Flickr user Crazy George)

Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate began their formal conference over surface transportation funding Tuesday, in a negotiation that could take up to a month and where tens of billions of dollars are at stake.

Lawmakers from both sides of the Capitol gathered in one of the Hill's largest hearings rooms to begin hashing out an agreement between the chambers. On the table: A two-year Senate bill worth $109 billion backed by a broad bipartisan vote, versus House demands to cut spending, reform federal projects, cut regulations and force approval of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

The extension governing highway funding expires June 30. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) the champion of the Senate bill and the conference committee chair, told lawmakers they'll need to reach agreement by early June in order to get an agreement written and passed in time.

It won't be easy. Several tries left House Republicans unable to agree amongst themselves on a multi-year transportation policy. Meanwhile, many House conservatives consider the Senate bill a non-starter, largely because of its funding levels.

Now House Republicans begin the the conference at a distinct disadvantage. House and Senate Democrats are strongly behind the Senate bill, as are many Senate Republicans. The White House has also strongly backed the Senate's bid. SenatorJames Inhofe (R-Okla) leaned on House conservatives to accept the Senate's bill, which he helped craft with Boxer.

"I have every expectation we are going to be able to do that which the majority of Americans want done," he said.

House Republicans hold a few cards and are making some demands of their own. They want the Senate's $109 billion price tag reduced and are pushing hard to force the White House to accept final construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. They have also laid down markers repealing pending EPA coal ash pollution regulations.

"Let's not just spend more money. Let's have some serious reforms," urged Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) the conference committee's vice-chair.

Boxer began the proceedings with a long list of lobbying and interest organizations that support the Senate bill, ranging from AAA and trucking groups to the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"If the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce can work together, then surely we can work together," she said, adding that "failure is not an option for us."

But the reality is that in the 112th Congress, failure is, in fact, an option. Leadership aides in the House and Senate predicted that the election-year talks would likely lead to an agreement rejected by House Republican rank-and-file members. That could force Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to pass any final agreement with the help of large numbers of Democrats. Failing that, Congress can do what it's done nine times since 2005 and simply pass another extension of current law to avoid a shutdown.

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Transportation Nation

House Republicans Officially Introduce Surface Transpo Extension

Thursday, March 22, 2012

This just in: House Republicans introduced a three-month extension to avoid a shutdown of transportation programs after March 31.

From the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure:

"In order to ensure continuity of current surface transportation programs while the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and House Republicans continue to work toward a responsible transportation bill that provides long-term certainty, reduces the size of government, eliminates earmarks, and is fully paid for, Chairman Mica, Chairman Duncan and Chairman Camp introduced a three-month extension of transportation programs today.  This legislation, the Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2012 (H.R. 4239), will extend current programs through June 30, 2012."

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Transportation Nation

Tie-ups Mean No Transportation Votes Likely this Week

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Don't waste any time scanning C-SPAN for for congressional transportation votes this week. It's only Wednesday, and already the prospect of any floor action on transportation legislation in Congress is dead for this week.

That's the line from lawmakers and aides in both the House and Senate, as progress on highway bills in each chamber remain bogged down.

In the House, GOP leaders are still working on a scaled-back version of their five-year, $260 billion highway and infrastructure bill after Democrats balked and many Republicans revolted earlier this month. As reported elsewhere, discussions center around a shorter-term bill with a lower price tag. Republicans are tinkering with many provisions, including rejoining federal transit programs to funding from the Highway Trust Fund.

But those negotiations won't be anywhere close to done this week, lawmakers and aides said. "The leadership is working with the chairmen to try to bring a bill to the floor that can pass," Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Tuesday. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, put it more succinctly: "What they're trying to do is find the votes," he said.

Meanwhile, while a two-year, $190 billion bill is pending on the Senate floor, leaders there have still not agreed to the list of amendments needed to let debate proceed. Republicans are insisting on dealing with several other non-transportation-related votes first. They include an amendment to allow broad religious exemptions to new Obama Administration rules requiring insurance coverage for contraception and another taking foreign aid money away from Egypt to punish that country for its crackdown on US non-profit organizations.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he expects a vote on the contraception amendment to take place Thursday, with others to follow. But no transportation-related amendments are likely to come up for the remainder of the week, Senate aides said.

The current Highway Bill's authorization expires at the end of March, and the slow pace of progress in both chambers is putting a new authorization in serious doubt. The House is session next week but out of session the week after. Assuming Republican leaders come up with a workable bill, that would leave just two weeks to pass it and reconcile it with a Senate version. And THAT'S assuming the Senate completes its glacial process and list of amendment votes that is already dozens of votes long.

Talk of yet another temporary Highway Bill extension, possibly 18 months in length, is growing on Capitol Hill.


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Transportation Nation

Undaunted by Redistricting, John Mica Declares He's Staying Put

Friday, February 10, 2012

Florida Congressional Districts

Representative John Mica will run in his current, but remapped, Congressional District 7 in central Florida. The nine-term Republican Congressman and current chair of the House Transportation Committee was dealt a re-election hurdle with  Florida's redistricting plan that pitted several formidable Republican candidates against each other. Mica waited until after two others declared in which districts they would run before committing to his own.

"After consultation with my wife Pat, my family and my supporters, I have decided to continue my public service in what constitutes District 7 in the final map approved by the Florida Legislature, which includes Orange, Seminole and Volusia counties," Mica said in a statement Friday.

This sets up a potentially tough primary for the top transportation legislator as he will face Sandy Adams of Orlando. She's a first term incumbent who also resides in the newly formed 7th district and which now includes about 50 percent of her current constituency according to Sunshine State News.

Mica is well funded however, and says he wants to finish work he has underway. "Weighing heavily in this decision were two major factors, first my commitment to significant transportation projects like SunRail for our community and infrastructure for our nation" as well as projects for  seniors and veterans.

Mica won reelection in 2010 with 69 percent of the vote.

For more updates on all things central Florida, tune into WMFE. Or see the maps and data at the Florida State Senate website.

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Transportation Nation

Mica Set to Unveil New Tolling Plan for Interstates Tuesday

Saturday, January 28, 2012

U.S. Representatives Corrine Brown and John Mica

(Orlando, Fla.) Congressman John Mica says he will unveil next Tuesday a major five-year transportation bill to allow more public private partnerships to expand the capacity of Interstate Highways.

Locally Mica, who Chairs the U.S. House Transportation Committee, says that means creating new tolled lanes on Interstate 4. "What I’d like to do is double the  amount of lanes we will have, express lanes that we will have in the center of I 4 going not just up in the Seminole county but into Volusia county. We’re working on that now," he said.

Mica made the announcement at Friday’s Sunrail Groundbreaking Ceremony in Altamonte Springs.

Expanding lane and toll capacity is also a major goal for the Florida Department of Transportation.

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Transportation Nation

Just How Good Are the TSA’s Body Scanners?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

(Michael Grabell, ProPublica) It was the end of a four-hour congressional hearing, and Florida Rep. John Mica was fuming at Transportation Security Administration officials.

The TSA had begun deploying hundreds of body scanners [1] to prevent suicide bombers from smuggling explosives onto planes. But Mica, the Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee, had asked the Government Accountability Office to test the machines. The results, he said, showed the equipment is "badly flawed" and "can be subverted."

"I've had it tested, and to me it's not acceptable," Mica said at the hearing earlier this year. "If we could reveal the failure rate, the American public would be outraged."

Mica's comments received almost no press coverage. But his outrage, together with other reports by government inspectors and outside researchers, raise the disturbing possibility that body scanners are performing far less well than the TSA contends.

The issue is difficult to assess since the government classifies the detection rates of the devices, saying it doesn't want to give terrorists a sense of their chances of beating the system.

But the evidence is mounting.

Just last week, Department of Homeland Security investigators reported that they had "identified vulnerabilities [2]" in the scanners' detection capability, though the specifics remain classified. Previous research cast doubt on whether the scanners, which are designed to see underneath clothing, would detect a carefully concealed plastic explosive like the one used by the underwear bomber on Christmas Day 2009. One study suggests the $170,000 scanners would likely miss some explosives that could be found during a pat-down.

And recently, Mica and other members of Congress were briefed by the GAO on the full findings of its covert tests. The results, Mica told ProPublica, are "embarrassing."

Other lawmakers who have also been briefed declined to comment.

How effective the machines are at thwarting terrorism is critical for evaluating whether the TSA is making airline passengers more secure or wasting taxpayers' money -- and possibly jeopardizing their safety. Research shows that one type of scanner, which uses X-rays, could slightly increase the number of cancer cases [3]. The other scanner, using millimeter waves, has been hampered by false alarms [4] caused by folds in clothing and even sweat.

The TSA says the body scanners are the best technology available and an improvement by leaps and bounds over the metal detectors, which cannot detect explosives or other nonmetallic weapons.

The agency says its body scanners have found more than 300 dangerous or illicit items -- everything from a loaded .380-caliber Ruger handgun [5] to exotic snakes [6] that a man tried to smuggle inside his pants.

Last month, TSA administrator John Pistole boasted to Congress that a scanner had picked up a piece of Nicorette gum [7]. And in Buffalo recently, a passenger who was caught with a ceramic knife [8] after a pat-down admitted that he had opted out of the scanner because he figured it would find the knife.

Although the TSA's machines have yet to find an explosive, screeners frequently come across bottles of alcohol and drugs, which could easily have been a powder or liquid explosive, spokesman Greg Soule said.

Two homeland security officials, who asked not be identified speaking about vulnerabilities, said recent intelligence that terrorists are considering implanting explosives [9] inside their bodies shows that the scanners are forcing would-be suicide bombers to adapt their methods. The body scanners see only underneath clothing, not inside the body. Carrying out an attack with an implanted weapon, the officials said, would be technically more difficult than if an attacker had a bomb strapped to their chest.

The GAO reported [10] in 2010, however, that it was "unclear" if the scanners would have caught the explosive PETN that underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to detonate on a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit.

After the failed attempt, the TSA ramped up its deployment of two types of body scanners [11] -- one using backscatter X-rays and another using low-powered electromagnetic waves, known as millimeter waves. The TSA says both are highly effective, but a small number of studies that have been released publicly raise questions about each machine's ability to detect explosives.

Last year, Leon Kaufman and Joe Carlson, two physicists at the University of California, San Francisco, simulated what the backscatter X-ray scanners might see if a passenger carefully molded explosives to blend in with the human body. The machines were effective for seeing metal objects hidden on the human body and could detect the hard edges of organic materials, such as a brick of explosives, according to the study published last year in the Journal of Transportation Security [12].

But a thin, irregularly-shaped pancake taped to the abdomen would be invisible in images because it would be easily confused with normal anatomy, Kaufman and Carlson wrote. "Thus, a third of a kilo of PETN, easily picked up in a competent pat-down, would be missed by backscatter 'high technology,'" they concluded.

"The amount of contrast between an explosive and tissue is very, very low and not in the range where someone viewing the images could discriminate it by eye," Carlson said in an interview.

Peter Kant of Rapiscan Systems, which makes the backscatter machine, declined to comment on the researchers' study but said the scanner "has exceeded all aviation security detection testing globally."

No recent study of the millimeter-wave machine, manufactured by L-3 Communications, could be found. But initial tests at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 1996 showed a detection rate of 73 percent.

Bulk plastic explosives were the hardest threat to detect, according to the study by researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Screeners who were new to the machine found nearly all the Glock pistols in the images, but they were able to identify the bulk explosives only 56 percent of the time.

Another study a few years later tested a primitive version of the privacy software now used in airports in which detection is performed by a computer, not a person. The detection rate was comparable, the researchers concluded, but the test did not break down the results by type of threat.

"Certain objects are tougher to find than others," said Tom Ripp, president of L-3's security and detection division. "I would think that both technologies have the capability to find these threats. Is it easy to find these threats? I would not say it's easy to find these threats. But they can be detected."

Prompted by an outcry over the graphic images the body scanners produce, the TSA began installing privacy software [13] on all of its millimeter-wave machines this summer. Instead of creating an image of the passenger's body, the machines now display a generic outline of a human body with potential threats highlighted by yellow boxes.

"The TSA has said that automated detection had to be as good as or better than the required detection by an operator," said Bill Frain, a senior vice president at L-3. "Right now, we're on par."

The X-ray body scanner, however, still produces images of passengers' bodies, which are examined by TSA screeners in a separate room. Rapiscan has developed an automated system, but it is undergoing tests in TSA research labs.

Before such software was developed, many security and imaging experts believed the backscatter X-ray machine produced sharper images than the millimeter-wave machine. Millimeter waves have longer wavelengths than X-rays, resulting in a lower resolution.

But with automated detection software, the machines would no longer produce images, and the ability of the machines to detect threats is more dependent on the algorithms used in the software.

The TSA has spent more than $100 million on the body scanners and plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more as it outfits nearly every airport security lane with a scanner by 2014.

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Transportation Nation

Florida House Redistricting Proposals Signal Trouble for Mica's District

Thursday, December 08, 2011

WMFERedistricting is Underway in Fla.- Orlando- John Mica's seat may not be safe under the  Florida House’s plans either.

A Florida State Senate plan released last week would severely redraw the Congressional district for the chair of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure committee, John Mica.

Now four of a seven Florida House proposals for Congressional districts don't look better for Mica(Available for review here.), according to political analyst Steven Schale.

He says  four maps out of the seven proposals released by the House would put Mica in districts that "voted right around fifty percent or above for (President) Obama.  Under any measure, that is far more competitive than (where) Mica is in today."

Both houses of Florida's legislature are Republican-controlled.

Last week, the Florida Senate released its version of proposed district revisions.  Those plans could potentially draw influential congressional members outside of their existing districts.  For example, the residence of powerful U.S. Congressman John Mica, of Winter Park, could be removed from its current location within Mica’s district 7.  Mica chairs the House Transportation Committee.

This week on WMFE’s Intersection program, former Florida GOP Congressman Lou Frey, clarified that it is not necessary for a member of Congress to live in their district, “Mica hasn’t lived in his district on and off. You don’t have to live in the district.  You have to live in the state and you have to be over 25 years of age, but that’s it.  So whether you live in the district or not, it’s a political matter.”

Final outlines for the redistricting maps will not be solidified until January's legislative session.

Mica's office says he'll comment when the final maps are released.

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Transportation Nation

John Mica could Lose District Under Redistricting Proposal

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Rep. John Mica (Photo: John Mica Facebook Page)

Orlando, WMFE) Under a new Florida Senate redistricting proposal released this week, powerful Republican U.S. Representative John Mica -- the chair of the House Transportation Committee --  could be drawn out of his current 7th District seat, which currently runs from just north of Orlando to just south of Jacksonville.

Mica is based in the small but wealthy city of Winter Park, north of Orlando. The new plan removes Mica’s portion of Winter Park from the 7th District and places the entire city within Florida's 24th Congressional District, which is currently represented by Republican  Congresswoman Sandy Adams.

Mica’s district would still cover large portions of Volusia, Flagler, and St. Johns Counties.  The Florida House is expected to release its version of the new map next week. State lawmakers will finalize the new district maps during January’s legislative session. Both chambers are controlled by the GOP, and both the State Senate President and House Speaker are from central Florida.

Mica's office says he's reserving comment until after the legislature decides on the final maps.

Read more about the Florida Senate proposal here.

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Transportation Nation

Central Florida Takes in Millions for Rail and Roads Plans

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

East Central Florida Regional Planning Council Getting Ready for Rail

(WMFE, Orlando, Fla.)  This week the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a $2.4 million dollar grant to the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council to develop transit options around Central Florida’s planned Sunrail commuter train stations.

The money comes in the form of a HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant. East Central Florida Regional Planning Council (ECFRPC) Commission Chair Cheryl L. Grieb says “The grant funding will support detailed station area planning for six of the 12 phase I Sunrail Stations, and affordable housing assessments for all 12 station areas.”  Sunrail is slated to start running in 2014.

That wasn't the only transportation financing news for the area recently. Late last week the Orlando Orange County Expressway Authority announced a tentative funding deal to build the $1.8 billion dollar Wekiva Parkway near Orlando. The highway would complete a ring-road network around the great metro Orlando region.

Under the proposal, the Expressway Authority would split ownership of the road with the Florida Department of Transportation. Expressway spokeswoman Lindsay Hodges says the arrangement is similar to deals with other major toll roads around Orlando. Details still need to be worked out between Fla. DOT and Metroplan Orlando.

Winter Park Congressman John Mica (R) urged the Expressway Authority to consider a variety of options to help fund the project. In a recent interview with WMFE, Mica, who chairs the U.S. House Transportation Committee, suggested the private section could play a valuable role, "They should consider putting the toll roads up for private tender. I think that they could raise a tremendous amount of capital, finance projects like the Parkway, some expansion on I-4 without coming to the federal government."  Parts of the Wekiva Expressway would be tolled under the current proposal.

Earlier this month, under pressure from Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs and other political leaders, Expressway Authority chief Mike Syder resigned after questions over his financial management of the roads agency.

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Transportation Nation

Mica Draws Connection Between Central Florida SunRail and Port of Miami Project

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

(Orlando, Fla-- Mark Simpson, WMFE) Central Florida Republican Congressman John Mica says he's carefully reviewing Governor Rick Scott’s proposal to deepen the port of Miami to accommodate a new class of larger ships.

As chair of the House Transportation Committee, Mica is in charge of signing off on Federal dollars for the project. At a meeting in Orlando Monday, Mica made a point to compare that process with the Governor's review of Central Florida's planned commuter train.

Governor Rick Scott wants to spend $77 million of state money to dredge the Port of Miami, but total costs for the project are expected to be as high as $150 million.

Congressman John Mica's committee gets to decide whether to approve an additional $75 million in federal money that would make up the difference.

Mica didin't directly  say he was linking that decision  to the Governor's  approval of the SunRail commuter train ... but he did bring up the similar timings for the two decisions, “ I get to authorize the project for the deepening at the federal level. Right now I’m studying them very closely as the Governor is studying the rail project very closely and I’ll make my decision next month in June about the time he makes his decision.”

Mica is referring to Governor Scott’s months long review of   SunRail's financial viability.

That has put a lot of SunRail supporters, including Mica, on alert, especially after the Governor torpedoed Florida’s High Speed Rail hopes in February.

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