With help from Stephanie Beasley
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— Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is set to defend the Trump administration’s DOT budget proposal at a House hearing today.
— House lawmakers offered up reality checks on potential surface transportation reauthorization pay-fors during a conference on Wednesday.
— DHS may request that Congress tweak the law that created the REAL ID requirement so applicants can use their smartphones to send in information.
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CHAO’S FIRST HEARING OF 2020: Chao this morning will appear before House appropriators where she’ll no doubt field questions about the $810 billion surface transportation reauthorization included in the White House budget request, and potential ways to pay for it. We also expect some members to scoff at the 13 percent decrease in fiscal 2021 discretionary funding that the administration has proposed for DOT.
As in previous years, Amtrak boosters on the subcommittee will likely call out the administration for proposing cuts to Amtrak and an overhaul of long-distance routes, and lawmakers from New York and New Jersey will likely push Chao on federal funding for the Gateway Program. Finally, with the 737 MAX crisis still ongoing, there could be a few questions about the FAA’s oversight of Boeing and the jet’s return to service.
Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee is having a hearing this morning with acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan. We’ll have both hearings covered for you.
FOLLOW THE MONEY: Lawmakers speaking to state DOT chiefs at an AASHTO conference Wednesday tipped their hands somewhat on how to pay for the next surface transportation reauthorization. First, House Highways and Transit Subcommittee ranking member Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) advised the audience not to “get into a spat about the viability of VMT versus the gas tax,” and suggested that a package with “multiple options” could garner more support — especially if it finally gets “freeloaders” who drive electric cars and don’t pay fuel taxes to pay into the system. He said there will be a lot more EVs in the next few years, and it won’t get any easier to levy a tax.
It’s no skin off his back: Although Rivian Automotive makes EVs in his district, Davis acknowledged, “I probably don’t have a single EV driver in my district who votes for me anyway.”
Truck it up: Meanwhile, two Democrats urged caution on any new miles-traveled fee for trucks. House Transportation Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said such a fee — on top of existing taxes on new trucks and tires — would be “problematic.” And Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) said he has “cautioned against” the idea.
Here’s the catch, though: Pretty much everyone agrees on the need to transition from the gas tax to VMT, and pretty much everyone agrees that the move is still years away. Plus, as Blumenauer noted, the fuel tax is “amazingly efficient” and VMT will likely be costlier and more complicated to collect. Privacy issues still weigh on the VMT debate, too. That’s why starting with trucks is such an appealing idea: There’s already a mechanism in place to track their miles, and a shift to VMT could be fairly seamless.
Chao also spoke at the AASHTO conference, announcing that DOT will hold a pedestrian safety summit April 7.
MAKING THE GRADE: California’s DMV released 2019 autonomous vehicle disengagement reports Wednesday, giving automakers a new chance to hate on them. They say the reports, which provide data on the number of times human drivers needed to take control of driverless cars, are useless in figuring out how good the technology is. Waymo, despite its impressive disengagement rate, said Wednesday there’s no reason to be impressed.
“The disengagement metric does not provide relevant insights,” the company said on Twitter, taking a stand on the reports for the first time and saying most of its “large-scale real-world driving” is happening outside of California.
ROUND TWO: Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf made his second appearance before congressional appropriators this week and again found himself pressed on familiar issues. During a House hearing on Wednesday, Wolf defended DHS’ decision to suspend trusted traveler enrollments for New Yorkers because of a state “sanctuary” law after Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) questioned whether DHS had given state officials ample opportunity to otherwise resolve the issue. Our Stephanie Beasley has more details from that exchange.
Real solutions: Wolf also fielded concerns from Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.) that TSA might be unprepared to deal with potential chaos at airports after the REAL ID deadline. Wolf acknowledged that TSA didn’t currently have any “good” solutions. But he said DHS was looking for ways to boost the sagging compliance level — which is currently just 35 percent — and may ask Congress to allow applicants to use their smartphones to submit information electronically.
CORONAVIRUS HEARING NEXT WEEK: The Senate Commerce Aviation Subcommittee will hold a hearing March 4 on curbing the spread of the virus.
The witnesses, in addition to CBP’s Morgan, will be Joel Szabat, DOT’s acting undersecretary for policy, and Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
On the House side: DeFazio and Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) wrote to Chao on Wednesday slamming DOT for not having a “national aviation-preparedness plan for communicable disease outbreaks,” which GAO recommended back in 2015.
REMEMBERING MATTHEW ZUCCARO: The recently retired president and CEO of the Helicopter Association International died earlier this week at age 70. In a statement, the group’s current leader, James Viola, said Zuccaro “made safe helicopter operations his priority, and we are a better, stronger, and safer industry today because of his efforts on behalf of rotorcraft.” House Transportation ranking member Sam Graves (R-Mo.) in a statement called Zuccaro a “straight-shooting, passionate leader,” as well as a “good friend” and adviser. Zuccaro was a member of the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee, which is meeting today.
PTC UPDATE: FRA is expected to release a 2019 fourth-quarter status update on positive train control implementation today.
Susan Doniz will become Boeing’s chief information officer and senior vice president of information technology and data analytics in May. Doniz has been chief information officer at Qantas Group for the last three years.
Sarah Gilmore is now coordinator for global government affairs at Airlines for America. She was previously a senior associate at Crossroads Strategies.
— “ICE has run facial-recognition searches on millions of Maryland drivers.” Washington Post.
— “House Transportation panel advances bill to speed airport projects.” POLITICO Pro.
— “China’s airlines offer domestic flights for as little as $4 as industry struggles amid outbreak.” South China Morning Post.
— “Delta cuts flights to South Korea amid coronavirus outbreak.” Atlanta Business Chronicle.
— “A United passenger’s laptop battery caught fire mid-flight, forcing the pilot to make an emergency landing in Florida.” Business Insider.
— “Toyota invests $400M in Pony.ai, bringing self-driving start-up’s valuation to $3B.” South China Morning Post.
— The Governors Highway Safety Association estimated in a report to be unveiled today that 6,590 pedestrians died in traffic crashes across the country last year, a 5 percent increase from 2018 and the most since 1988.
DOT appropriations run out in 216 days. The FAA reauthorization expires in 1,313 days. Highway and transit policy is up for renewal in 216 days.