With help from Brianna Gurciullo and Tanya Snyder
Editor’s Note: This edition of Morning Transportation is published weekdays at 10 a.m. POLITICO Pro Transportation subscribers hold exclusive early access to the newsletter each morning at 6 a.m. Learn more about POLITICO Pro’s comprehensive policy intelligence coverage, policy tools and services, at politicopro.com.
— House Transportation Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) is looking at coming up with legislation that would make sure the FAA adequately reviews safety-critical features of airplanes it’s certifying.
— The finger-pointing following a 2018 bridge collapse in Florida was justified, NTSB said, as investigators found "errors up and down the line" behind the deadly accident.
— Traffic deaths dropped overall in 2018, but it was a deadly year for pedestrians and bicyclists, according to new NHTSA data.
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DEFAZIO WANTS 'EXTRAORDINARY SCRUTINY' TO BE FAA'S CERTIFICATION STANDARD: As he moves toward drafting legislation in response to the two Boeing 737 MAX crashes, the House Transportation chairman wants to ensure that the FAA's oversight of safety-critical items is strengthened. As your host reported Tuesday, DeFazio hasn’t worked out the details and doesn’t want to commit to a timeline yet, but he's planning to push for changes in how the regulator oversees aircraft approval. “I don’t care who at FAA is reviewing the color of wallpaper," he told POLITICO, but there needs to be "extraordinary scrutiny" of systems that could lead to crashes.
There’s a sense of urgency for DeFazio, given that manufacturers are still churning out new plane models and features. A hearing next week with Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg could shape the committee’s legislative approach. "There are unknown paths that this hearing could open," the Oregon Democrat said.
Meanwhile, the head of Boeing’s commercial planes division left his post on Tuesday. Kevin McAllister had been president and CEO of the division since November 2016.
S&P Global Ratings announced the same day that Boeing’s outlook had dropped from stable to negative, in light of the “potential lasting damage from the 737 MAX grounding." S&P also took note of reports about controversial messages from 2016 between Mark Forkner, who then was Boeing’s 737 chief technical pilot, and a coworker. The Seattle Times reported earlier this week that it looks like what Forkner discussed in those messages was a “software bug” in a simulator and not actually issues with an automated feature called MCAS, which has been implicated in the crashes.
DeFazio told our Brianna Gurciullo that he's "heard that assertion" and it "may be true." But he noted that in one of the messages, Forkner said he "unknowingly" lied to regulators, and days earlier, he said he was "jedi-mind tricking regulators into accepting the training that I got accepted by FAA" in an email to someone at the agency. "So that implies to me that even if it was just one bad simulator session, he had ideas that something else was wrong," DeFazio said.
Boeing released a progress report Tuesday on returning the MAX to service, noting that it performed a “dry-run” of a certification flight test last week. FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said there are “several more weeks” of testing and evaluation ahead. “Once we get to that point, then it’s a fairly straightforward process to unground the airplane,” he said Tuesday at an Air Traffic Control Association conference. “But again, we’ve got considerable work to do to get there.”
Dickson also reflected on the findings so far from reviews of the FAA’s original certification of MCAS, including suggesting that changes are needed to “make sure that we don’t have fragmented communications” with manufacturers.
PHOTO DU JOUR: A handful of multicolored 737 MAX jets sitting at Boeing Field in Seattle, courtesy of Reuters photographer Gary He.
THERE’S BLAME TO GO AROUND: NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said on Tuesday that he’s “never seen more finger-pointing" following the Miami bridge collapse that killed six people in 2018, but in this case it was “actually correct” as “there were errors up and down the line.” Principally — and this was the probable cause, according to NTSB — FIGG Bridge Engineers miscalculated the load and strength of the bridge. FIGG also selected a firm that didn’t have proper qualifications to conduct the independent peer review, and the FIGG engineer should have shut down the bridge and stopped traffic under it due to the seriousness of the cracks in the concrete.
FIGG leaf: But FIGG is pointing the finger at the construction company, MCM, saying it improperly roughened the concrete, a process of altering the material to promote mechanical bonding. NTSB found that while it was not done right, adequate roughening would not have prevented the collapse. But an analysis by “the country’s preeminent forensic structural engineering firm,” cited by FIGG, found that the improper roughening “was the fundamental cause of the collapse.”
KUDLOW TALKS INFRASTRUCTURE: White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said President Donald Trump likes the Senate’s surface transportation bill, but the administration isn’t ready for an endorsement yet. “The president has tweeted positively on the Senate highway bill,” Kudlow said. “I don’t want to get ahead of him and suggest that we will absolutely endorse it, but again, he likes what he sees.”
Kudlow, who was speaking at an infrastructure conference in Washington on Tuesday, also touched on the Texas Central high-speed rail project, which is aiming to connect Houston and Dallas with a bullet train.
“Folks, we will give you the permits. If you can figure out how to do it, go on ahead and do it,” he said. But the project’s developers shouldn’t expect much federal financial assistance: “I’d like to say if we had it, we’d give it to you. We don’t have it. But I wouldn’t give it to you any way. But you can raise the money privately,” Kudlow said.
LET’S DEBATE: The Senate voted on Tuesday to start debating a spending bundle, including a fiscal 2020 Transportation-HUD measure. But POLITICO Pro’s Budget & Appropriations team reports that “it looks increasingly possible that another stopgap spending bill will be needed amid battles over border fences and impeachment.”
CAR DEATHS WERE DOWN LAST YEAR: New data released by NHTSA on Tuesday show there was a decrease in overall highway traffic fatalities in 2018, but deaths of pedestrians and bicyclists were on the rise. The report said 36,560 people died on the roads, down 2.4 percent from the year before. Other notable decreases were seen in deaths of children, which dropped more than 10 percent, and fatalities due to speeding and alcohol impairment. NHTSA’s initial estimates for the first half of 2019 also show the positive trends may be continuing, with a 3.4 percent decrease compared with the same period last year.
The bad news in the report was another rise in deaths of non-drivers. Pedestrian deaths rose 3.4 percent from 2017 to 6,283, the highest level in almost 30 years. And cyclist deaths spiked 6.3 percent to 857. “This is an epidemic of preventable deaths,” said Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing for Consumer Reports.
TIP YOUR DRIVERS: A new report by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that nearly 60 percent of Uber riders never tip. Only 1 percent always tipped.
DeFazio told Tanya he always tips. “I had a five-star rating,” he said, but in the wake of the “public lashing” he gave Uber and Lyft last week at a hearing they declined to attend, “I bet I’m down to zero now.” For the record: Your MT host (who was also briefly an Uber driver in a past life) has a 4.95 passenger rating, the highest of anyone on our team.
— “A former JetBlue employee scammed the airline out of $785,000. Now she faces prison time.” Washington Post.
— “U.S. EPA chief hints vehicle CO2 limits will tighten.” Reuters.
— “Autoworkers from closed plants fight new GM contract.” Associated Press.
— “Lyft expects to be profitable a year earlier than projected.” Wall Street Journal.
— “Drugstores are in the sweet spot for drone deliveries.” Wired.
DOT appropriations run out in 30 days. The FAA reauthorization expires in 1,439 days. Highway and transit policy is up for renewal in 344 days.