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California gas tax repeal campaign seeks federal inquiry

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SACRAMENTO, Calif.  — Leaders of a campaign to repeal California’s recent gas and diesel tax increase asked the federal government this week to investigate their claims that public resources have been used against them.

Their allegations are based on emails and other documents that appear to show local government workers discussing the repeal effort, known as Proposition 6. In one, a San Francisco official says in an email that showing how gas tax funds benefit the city is important “to support the anti-repeal campaign.”

“It’s damning, it’s unacceptable,” Proposition 6 campaign leader Carl DeMaio said Tuesday. “They are using taxpayer dollars to influence an election.”

Republican Congressman Ken Calvert requested an investigation by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general, saying some of the agencies involved receive some federal money. De Maio said he obtained the emails through public records requests and that he also plans to file complaints with local district attorneys. He held a press conference Wednesday outlining the charges.

A spokeswoman for the anti-Proposition 6 campaign denied improper behavior.

“The No on Prop 6 campaign follows all campaign laws,” Robin Swanson said in a statement. “We’re working hard to educate voters about how damaging Prop 6 will be to the safety of our roads and bridges.”

A law called SB1 , passed by California lawmakers, raised gasoline taxes by 12 cents a gallon starting last November and diesel taxes by 20 cents. Diesel sales taxes also rose, and drivers are paying a new annual fee with their vehicle registration, ranging from $25 to $175 depending on the value of the vehicle. The taxes and fees all rise each year, based on inflation.

It’s projected to increase about $5 billion a year to address a backlog of deferred maintenance on state and local roadways. The California Department of Transportation highlights projects funded by the tax increase on signs around the state that include an address to a website outlining how SB1 money is spent.

The California Department of Transportation said Wednesday it will not include the website address on future signs after federal officials said it may not comply with rules that aim to ensure road signs are easy to read, department spokesman Matt Rocco said. The change will not affect the cost, Rocco said.

DeMaio highlighted a news story about the signs’ possible non-compliance as further evidence of wrongdoing.

Proposition 6 would repeal the tax and fee increases and also require voter approval for any future increases in gas taxes or vehicle fees. Opponents of the ballot measure say the tax increase benefits the state and is needed to repair the state’s crumbling roads.

In one email exchange from June, a few days before Proposition 6 officially qualified for the ballot, the Sacramento Regional Transit Agency asks an organization it contracts with to help with its “educational campaign” that “related to the gas tax repeal.”

Devra Selenis, a spokeswoman for the agency, said the agency has never told people how to vote. On behalf of RT, the contractor, Valley Vision, organized a community event where various groups highlighted the benefits of SB1, she said.

“We are allowed to educate on benefits of what SB1 covers and that’s all we’ve ever done,” Selenis said. “That is the public’s right to know what we spend money on.”

The Proposition 6 campaign alleges the emails show an attempt to influence the outcome of the ballot measure because the education campaign is scheduled through the election and is “related to the gas tax repeal.”

DeMaio also points to a Sept. 25, 2017, email sent by Kate Breen, the government affairs director for the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency, to colleagues, in which she summarizes the progress of efforts to repeal SB1.

“To support the anti-repeal campaign, it will be important that SF continues to document how SB 1 finds (sic) are benefiting SF,” Breen wrote.

Proposition 6 proponents say the email indicates the transit agency was interested in influencing the campaign. It’s not clear what efforts the agency did to promote the gas tax. The email was sent before the measure qualified for the ballot but after the campaign had filed paperwork to begin collecting signatures.

“The proposition hadn’t even qualified for the statewide ballot,” Paul Rose, the transit agency’s spokesman, said in an email. “There was no campaign to work for or against. Since that time the measure has become real and we have been very careful not to advocate as a public agency.”

In another email released by the Proposition 6 campaign, the California Transit Association, a lobbying organization, sent a plan to local government agencies outlining campaigning plans to oppose SB1 repeal. It’s not clear from the documents if any of the government agencies copied on the email acted on the plan laid out by the association. The October 2017 email describes efforts to persuade vulnerable Republican members of Congress to avoid backing Proposition 6.

DeMaio also pointed to signs at construction sites saying “your tax dollars at work” with a prominent SB1 logo and allegations that state contractors distributed fliers urging voters to keep the tax increase in place. The Fair Political Practices Commission has said it’s investigating the matter.

PHOTO CAPTION

In this July 11, 2018, file photo, workers repave a street in Roseville, California, partially funded by a gas tax hike passed by the Legislature in 2017. Leaders of the Proposition 6 campaign to repeal California’s recent gas tax increase are asking the federal government to investigate their claims that public resources have been used against them. A spokeswoman for the anti-Proposition 6 campaign countered the allegations, saying the campaign follows all laws. (Associated Press: PEDRONCELLI)

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The Nation

TCA names its 2018 Driver of the Year honorees

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At the Truckload Carriers Association's annual convention, Ester Nemeth, joined by Bison Transport Director of Safety and Driver Development Garth Pitzel, reacts to hearing the announcement that she'd been named TCA's Company Driver of the Year.

LAS VEGAS — Professional sports leagues have their MVPs, Hollywood has its Oscars. If you’re a professional truck driver, one of the most prestigious marks of recognition is to be named a Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) Driver of the Year.

The grand finale of every TCA annual convention is the awards banquet, and nothing is awaited with more anticipation than the Driver of the Year presentation.

“We all know these drivers,” said Dan Doran, who emceed the awards ceremony as his final duty as TCA chairman, “the ones who not only drive safely, but give back to their communities and enhance the image of trucking. The professional truck drivers I’m referencing make us proud to be a part of this great industry.”

Finalists in the Driver of the Year Contests represent “the best of the best on our roads today,” Doran said.

Two drivers are named each year: Company Driver of the Year and Owner-Operator of the Year. Finalists for both awards complete a lengthy nomination form, documenting their safety record and work history. They must also submit essays about their driving background, community involvement, and about the importance of staying healthy while on the road.

Finalists must also submit reference letters from their company’s top executives and safety directors.

Along with that documentation, finalists for the Owner-Operator of the Year award must also submit a financial statement and business plan. Submissions for all finalists are reviewed by a four-member judging panel.

When it was all sorted out, Ester Nemeth was named the 2018 Company Driver of the Year.

A veteran driver of 26 years, the last 19 with Bison Transport, Nemeth has logged 3.75 million accident-free miles.

She is also an advocate of healthy living on the road, encouraging healthy habits in her fellow drivers.

Nemeth said she wanted to drive since she was a kid and she would see the trucks pass through her small town.

The profession has lived up to her expectations. The trucking community “is like its own little family, its own little community,” she said. “It’s a wonderful way of life.”

And it’s gotten even better over the years. Nemeth said when she started driving, she drove team, and people would often overlook her and interact with her male partner.

“But now they treat me like a driver, just like anybody else, which is good. I appreciate that.”

The award itself was a milestone in that direction. Nemeth was the first nominee for the award since 2005.

“This is such an incredible and humbling honor to be here this evening,” she said in accepting the award. “With all the exceptional drivers in this industry, to be recognized is unbelievable. My love of driving and my commitment to safety are what brought me here tonight.”

The past two years have been particularly rewarding, Nemeth said, since she was recruited in-house to be an in-cab trainer. “I have learned as much from my trainees as I hope they have learned from me.”

The other finalists for the 2018 Company Driver of the Year were Donald Lewis of Wilson Logistics and David McGowan of WEL Companies.

Danny Jewell, left, accompanied by James Schommer, president of Warren Transport, Inc., looks heavenward at hearing he’s TCA’s Owner-Operator Driver of the Year.

Danny Jewell, who last year passed the 50-year threshold as a professional truck driver, reached another career milestone as the 2018 Owner-Operator of the Year.

Jewell, 73, has driven his entire career with Warren Transport, logging more than 6 million accident-free miles. He was also recently named the Iowa Motor Truck Association’s Truck Master Driver of the Year.

Like Nemeth, Jewell said truck driving was a childhood dream, and when he became an owner-operator in 1972, that dream was fulfilled. “the rest is history,” he said.

He said that the last few years, he’s been trying to figure out how to get more young people today interested in trucking. “It’s a great job, there are so many opportunities out there,” he said.

Jewell had plenty of people to thank, But the only person who could lead his acceptance speech was Sharon, his wife of 55 years, who held up the home front all these years and gets the credit for most important achievements — five children, 20 grandchildren, and four (soon to be five) great-grandchildren.

The other 2018 Owner-Operator of the Year finalists were Robert Roth of Erb Transport and Kevin Kocmich of Diamond Transportation System.

Along with the honor of the title Driver of the Year, Nemeth and Jewell were also presented with checks for $25,000.

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Driver who aided woman after wrong-way crash named Highway Angel of the Year

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EpicVue CEO Lance Platt, left, and recording artist Lindsay Lawler present Brian Snell of Pottle’s Transportation with the Highway Angel of the Year award during the Truckload Carriers Association’s 81st annual convention. (The Trucker: KLINT LOWRY)

LAS VEGAS — For most people, there are maybe only a handful of instances in their lives that call for an act of heroism.

“We’d all like to believe that if the situation presented itself, each of us would be able to step up and offer assistance to others in their time of need,” Truckload Carriers Association Chairman Dan Doran said March 12 at the general session of the closing day of the 81st annual TCA convention.

With as much time as professional truck drivers spend out on the open road, they are more likely than most folks to come across fellow travelers who need help. And every year, there are several stories of drivers who step up to offer their assistance.

In 1997, TCA and corporate sponsor EpicVue created the Highway Angels program “to improve the public’s image of the trucking industry by highlighting positive stories of professional truck drivers who display exemplary acts of kindness, courtesy, and courage while on the job,” Doran said.

Highway Angels are recognized throughout the year. “EpicVue is honored to recognize these incredible professional truck drivers, who put themselves sometimes in great danger to help a fellow truck driver, a motorist, and even a small child who may be wandering alone in the dark,” said EpicVue CEO Lance Platt.

One of these drivers is then chosen for special recognition at the annual TCA convention as the Highway Angel of the Year. This year’s Highway Angel of the Year Brian Snell, a regional trainer with Bangor, Maine-based Pottle’s Transportation. Platt was joined by recording artist Lindsay Lawler in presenting Snell with the award.

Lawler, the official spokesperson for the Highway Angel program and whose song “Highway Angel” is a tribute to the spirit of the program and to the drivers who personify that spirit, said Snell “is passionate about what he does, humble, and an overall brilliant example of what this program aims to highlight.”

A brief video prior to the presentation described the early-morning rescue for which Snell was being honored. After the ceremony, he recalled the incident in his own words.

Snell was driving on I-495 in Massachusetts at about 2:15 a.m. on June 8, 2018, when he saw the headlights of a vehicle driving the wrong way up ahead before it hit something and spun out to a stop. Snell stopped his truck in the middle of the road, blocking oncoming traffic from the crashed car.

As other motorists stopped, Snell got out of his truck to assess the situation. The car’s front end was mangled, and the woman behind the wheel was unconscious.

Snell is no stranger to emergency situations. He joined the Marines in 1989, but an injury sustained in boot camp curtailed his military career. After his discharge in 1992, he spent nearly five years as a paramedic in Nashua, New Hampshire, near his hometown of Merrimack, before becoming a sheriff’s department rescue worker.

“I used to do a lot of high-angle rescue work,” Snell said. “It’s rope work. We were up on ledges, mountain work and all that.”

Even in his spare time, Snell has done “a ton of volunteering,” he said, including rescue work on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. At 6,288 feet, Mount Washington is the highest peak in the Northeast and part of the Appalachian Trail. It is popular with hikers, cyclists and gliders, but weather conditions can turn treacherous quickly.

“And when the World Trade Center went down I wound up going to Ground Zero working search and rescue down there.”

Snell spent five days as a volunteer at Ground Zero “literally digging in the dirt and going through the pile itself,” he said. He was among the rescue workers who became casualties of the attack after the fact. Part of his diaphragm became paralyzed and he lost a lung due to the prolonged exposure to the particulate matter in the air.

“Obviously, after 911, law enforcement was out because of the disability with my lung,” Snell said.

Snell was already on his way to becoming a full-time professional truck driver. “My grandfather for years told me to get my truck license,” Snell said. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to be a truck driver.’” But turning an economic downturn he had taken his grandfather’s advice and had started what had been a gradual transition from emergency work into trucking.

In those early morning hours last June, Snell’s professional worlds came together when he came to the driver’s assistance.

“The car was on fire,” he said. “I put the flames out with the fire extinguisher. Then I started working on her to make sure she was conscious and breathing and all that.”

While he was doing that, he heard one of the other motorists who had stopped to help yelling some distance away that they “couldn’t get in.” That’s when Snell realized that another vehicle had been involved in the crash.

“I thought she’d just bounced off the guardrail,” Snell said, but she had collided head-on with another car. He went over to the second car and saw the driver, a 32-year-old man, was dead.

There was a dog inside the car, and Snell had to smash a window to get to it. As it happened, the first officer on the scene was a K-9 officer, so Snell left the dog in his care then he returned to the first car to help rescue workers extract the woman.

He said when Highway Angel organizers first tried to contact him about being an honoree, he didn’t return their phone calls. “I don’t do what I do to be recognized, you know what I mean?” he said. “And finally my company got involved and said, ‘You got to call back.’

Being named a Highway Angel was an honor, he said, and then when he heard he had been named Highway Angel of the Year, he was “ecstatic,” but he admitted he’s had mixed emotions because of the circumstances around the incident.

“It’s a very bittersweet award to accept,” Snell said. “I’m literally being honored for saving someone who killed somebody.” The woman, who was intoxicated at the time of the crash, has been charged with vehicular homicide.

“Hopefully, she changes her ways,” he said.

The Highway Angel of the Year was created to honor the person who best embodies the spirit of the Highway Angel program. Snell, 50, said he’s been doing rescue work, professionally and as a volunteer, since he was on the American Red Cross Disaster Team in high school.

He’s even delivered a baby along the roadside. Putting yourself out there for your fellow human beings is simply part of the values by which he was raised.

“My whole family is community driven,” he said. “The Lord has always told everybody he wants us to be the Good Samaritan, and I don’t pass that up. Anybody I can help, I try to do anything I can for them.”

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Report shows states have introduced 185 bills to boost transportation investment

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The ARTBA-TIAC report showed that mileage-based user fee studies are being considered in eight states. (FOTOSEARCH)

WASHINGTON — A new 43-page report issued by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association’s Transportation Investment Advocacy Center indicates 37 states have introduced 185 bills aimed at boosting transportation investment in the first two months of 2019, with 21 of those states proposing to increase one or more types of fuel taxes, according to an article  in the Journal of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Of those 21 states, 10 included altering or creating a variable-rate tax that fluctuates based on external factors such as the Consumer Price Index, average wholesale price of motor fuel, or other formulas.

Continuing a trend seen in recent years, the ARTBA-TIAC report indicates 16 states are introducing electric vehicle fees to help ensure all vehicles that create wear and tear on roads pay for their share of maintenance, with 10 of those states including an additional registration fee for hybrid vehicles.

Similar legislation is being pushed at the federal level by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Rep. Jason Smith, R-Mo. They re-introduced a bill on Feb. 6 that Sen. Barrasso initially proffered last October in the waning days of the 115th Congress.

That legislation seeks to end electric vehicle federal tax credits while imposing a fee on operators of all alternatively fueled vehicles – be they powered by electricity, natural gas, hydrogen, etc. – that will be collected over the next 10 years and paid into the Highway Trust Fund.

The ARTBA-TIAC report added that mileage-based user fee studies – also known as a road user charge or a vehicle miles traveled tax – are being considered in eight states, while four states have introduced legislation to implement tolling.

So far, of the legislation introduced in January or February, ARTBA said 19 measures have advanced beyond one legislative chamber, with one bill – an electric vehicle registration fee increase in Wyoming – signed into law. Meanwhile, Arkansas and Alabama signed fuel tax increases into law this month.

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