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In this issue:
By: Braithwaite Communications

  • In FAA Reauthorization, House and Senate Bills at Odds of Privatizing ATC
  • Final stretch of Mon-Fayette Expressway Gets Approval
  • PA Turnpike Commission Prepares to Crack Down on Motorists Who Habitually Skip Tolls
  • PA Gets REAL ID Extension from Homeland Security
  • JaxPort to Begin $484M Dredging Project
  • After 3 Years, SunRail Ridership Short of Expectations
  • Jacksonville Transportation Authority Greenlights Lease of Autonomous Vehicles

In FAA Reauthorization, House and Senate Bills at Odds of Privatizing ATC

In the lead-up to the September, 2017, deadline for reauthorizing appropriations to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), incompatible bills in the House and Senate were recently approved by each chamber’s respective transportation committees.

In the House, the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act (H.R.2997), introduced by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) successfully moved out of committee after a 32-25 vote largely along party lines. The bill, supported by the Trump administration, would reauthorize the FAA for six years and privatize the nation’s air traffic control (ATS) system. Shuster’s bill calls for a federally chartered, fully independent, not-for-profit corporation to oversee ATC operations currently handled by the FAA.

“The United States has led the world in aviation since pioneering this modern mode of transportation. We have the safest system in the world, and we will continue to do so under this bill,” Shuster said in a statement. “But our system is incredibly inefficient, and it will only get worse as passenger levels grow and as the FAA falls further behind in modernizing the system.”

On the Senate side, the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2017 (S.1405) introduced by Sen. John Thune (R-SD) reauthorizes federal aviation programs through 2021 but does not include ATC privatization.

“ATC reform is obviously the biggest challenge to the current bureaucratic status quo in the House bill,” said Bob Shuster, Buchanan’s Co-Chair of State and Federal Government Relations. “While we’re seeing various forms of NGO ATCs becoming the norm around the world, making the switch here in the U.S. has been an uphill battle.”

The competing bills represent the first major reauthorization legislation since the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Last year’s reauthorization was essentially a short-term funding fix that maintained FAA operations until the current deadline this September.

While ATC privatization is a major point of contention between the bills, both pieces of proposed legislation add consumer protections and ban the airline practice of bumping passengers from a flight after they’ve already boarded. The stipulation was prompted by an incident in April when United Airlines forcibly removed a ticketed passenger who had already taken his seat on the plane. The interaction was captured on video by several other passengers and prompted national media attention and public outrage.

Both bills also include a bump in funding for the Airport Improvement Program, which supports capital projects at airports, including runway maintenance and other infrastructure upgrades. They both also continue the Small Community Air Service Development Program and Essential Air Service Program, which provides funding to maintain service to airports in rural areas.

“There’s a lot of common ground in these two pieces of proposed legislation, especially when it comes to increased federal funding” Shuster said. “Now it just remains to be seen when the House and Senate will find time to hash out the details of their respective bills.”

Final stretch of Mon-Fayette Expressway Gets Approval

The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission (SPC) voted 47-4 in favor of including the final leg of the Mon-Fayette Expressway in its long-term plan and budget. The $2.2 billion 14-mile extension will connect Route 51 in Jefferson Hills with Interstate 376 close to Monroeville.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald spearheaded the initiative to fund the extension once the Turnpike Commission said the state legislators would have to pass a new law to use the funds for other purposes.

“Rather than lose the money to projects elsewhere in the state, the SPC has voted to build the highway and hopefully bring some economic development to the Monongahela Valley,” said Buchanan’s Matt Fine. “It may not be the ideal project for all stakeholders, but the vote allows the region to keep the funding and for the Federal Highway Administration to approve an environmental impact statement so construction can begin.”

Three Pittsburgh representatives -- Aurora Sharrard, executive director of Green Building Alliance, Mavis Rainey of the Oakland Transportation Management Association, and Scott Brickner, executive director of Bike Pittsburgh – voted against the measure.

The Pittsburgh contingent opposed the project in large part because the highway does not directly connect to the city, despite past opposition to a Pittsburgh connection. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Councilman Ricky Burgess did not attend the meeting or vote.

Officials say the project may be split into two segments and could begin as early as 2020.

PA Turnpike Commission Prepares to Crack Down on Motorists Who Habitually Skip Tolls

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) is offering partial amnesty for motorists with significant toll violations before a new law takes effect that would suspend these drivers’ registrations until they pay off their fines.

Under the new law, known as Act 165 of 2016, drivers with six or more outstanding toll invoices or violations or who have unpaid tolls totaling $500 or more can have their motor-vehicle regulations suspended. There are 10,611 Pennsylvania drivers at risk for having their registration suspended when the new law takes effect on Aug. 4, 2017.

The state estimates these serial-violators accumulated 280,855 violations notices and invoices and owe the state $17.1 million.

“Our customers pay tolls so we can keep our roadway safe and in good repair and meet our obligation to PennDOT to help fund mass-transit services statewide,” Turnpike CEO Mark Compton said in a statement. “Now, those who are habitually taking a free ride — both private and commercial drivers — will have to stop doing that, or risk a suspension. It’s simply not fair to those who do pay their fair share.”

In the lead up to the Aug. 4 date, the state created a partial amnesty program for these drivers in which additional fees would be waived. Officials mailed letters to drivers at risk of having their registration suspended detailing the partial amnesty program, though fees would be waived for any driver with an outstanding toll bill or violation – not just the largest offenders.

“Pennsylvania’s budget struggles have been front page news recently,” said Buchanan’s Kim Sokoloski. “Turnpike tolls have traditionally been a relatively controversy-free source of funding – the state has increased toll amounts for nine years in a row. It makes sense that the state is working to collect as much revenue as possible, even if it means forgiving some additional penalties.”

PA Gets REAL ID Extension from Homeland Security

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has granted Pennsylvania a REAL ID enforcement extension through Oct. 10, 2017. The extension ensures that PA residents will not face any issues entering federal facilities, according to a news release from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT).

“Governor Wolf has been supportive of the REAL ID initiative, and these extensions will give PennDOT and the state the time needed to develop REAL ID-compliant licenses and identification cards before DHS begins enforcement,” said Debby Stark at Buchanan.

Gov. Wolf signed SB 133 (Act 3 of 2017) on May 26, 2017, repealing REAL ID nonparticipation legislation signed by Gov. Corbett. Following that repeal, DHS granted the state an exemption through July 10, 2017.

“I am pleased that the Department of Homeland Security has recognized the proactive steps that Pennsylvania has taken in terms of developing a plan for REAL ID compliance,” said Secretary of Transportation Leslie S. Richards in a press release. “We look forward to continued conversations with DHS over the coming months.”

PennDOT estimates REAL IDs will be available for customers who want them beginning in 2019.

JaxPort to Begin $484M Dredging Project

JaxPort board members voted unanimously to begin the first phase of dredging Jacksonville’s ship channel to allow for larger cargo vessels from Asia in the city’s port.

The first section will cost approximately $45 million out of a total estimate for the dredging project of $484 million. The port authority voted after an hour of public comments largely from members of the shipping community in favor of the move. Environmental activists said the public has not heard all the financial and environmental impacts the dredging will have on the surrounding area.

“U.S. ports that want to stay competitive need to upgrade their capacity to accommodate the massive shipments primarily coming from Asia. Other infrastructure changes still need to be worked out, but this is a significant step toward Jacksonville being able to accept these vessels,” said Marnie George of Buchanan’s Florida Government Relations group.

The Blount Island Terminal will need to be upgraded to handle the increase in cargo containers. There is currently no plan for how those improvements will be funded. For the initial dredging project, the federal government will contribute $21.5 million, the Florida Department of Transportation will provide $21.6 million and JaxPort will pay $2.9 million.

Earlier this summer, the 10,100 container vessel MOL Bravo came from Asia via the Suez Canal stopped at JaxPort. It was the largest containership to ever stop in Florida, and it was not filled to capacity because it would have sat too low in the water.

After 3 Years, SunRail Ridership Short of Expectations

In the three years since SunRail first began transporting customers in Central Florida, far fewer riders have used the service than was originally estimated.

Officials estimated 4,300 daily riders in when SunRail first opened in 2014. The average daily ridership was just 3,516 in 2017. That decreased ridership only generates $1.9 million in fare revenue, while operating the line costs the state $34 million.

“We’ve seen ridership on lines throughout Florida decrease in recent years,” said Buchanan’s Brett Bacot. “Relatively low gas prices and other economic factors are keeping people behind the wheel as they commute to work and travel throughout the state. It has created a great deal of uncertainty as SunRail looks to transition to private operation.”

The Florida Department of Transportation is slated to move operating responsibilities to private stakeholders in 2021 or sooner, though the operating deficit is much larger than initially projected.

Jacksonville Transportation Authority Greenlights Lease of Autonomous Vehicles

The Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) Board of Directors approved the Autonomous Vehicle Pilot Program, authorizing the JTA to lease autonomous vehicles for up to $200,000 per unit. The JTA will now begin the search for a vendor.

The approval of the pilot program is the next step following the JTA’s announced plans to use autonomous vehicles in an update to the Skyway – the city’s aging automated monorail system. Maintaining the current system is increasingly expensive, officials say.

“Driverless cars may grab all the headlines, but there are a lot of other exciting applications for autonomous vehicles, particularly in the mass transit space,” said Jim Magill, Principal in the Florida Government Relations group at Buchanan. “Transit agencies struggling with aging vehicles are expressing interest in autonomous solutions that allow for flexibility and are less likely to use obsolete technology.”

While no specific timelines or cost projections are set, the move to autonomous cars may eventually expand services to include vehicles on city streets as well as the existing Skyway structure.