DAYTON, Ohio (AP) — On the road in a tour bus this week, the U.S. transportation secretary is spreading some bad news: the government's Highway Trust Fund is nearly broke. If allowed to run dry, that could set back or shut down projects across the country, force widespread layoffs of construction workers and delay needed repairs and improvements.
Anthony Foxx kicked off an eight-state bus trip in Ohio to whip up public support for congressional approval of legislation to keep federal transportation aid flowing to states for another four years, and possibly longer. But Congress will have to act fast. The trust fund — the source of much of the aid — is forecast to essentially run dry sometime before the end of the federal fiscal year Sept. 30, and possibly as early as late August.
If that happens, the government will have to slow down or even halt payments to states, which rely on federal aid for most major highway projects. Uncertainty over whether there will be enough funds in the coming months is already causing officials in states like Arkansas, California and Colorado to consider delaying planned projects.
Foxx's warnings this week echo ones by President Barack Obama, who cautioned in February that unless Congress finished a bill by summer's end then "we could see construction projects stop in their tracks." But there is little interest among politicians in an election year to consider raising gasoline taxes.
Many transportation insiders, including Foxx's predecessor, Ray LaHood, predict Congress will wind up doing what it has done repeatedly over the past five years — dip into the general treasury for enough money for to keep programs going a few weeks or a few months, at which point the exercise will have to be repeated all over again.
But keeping highway and transit aid constantly teetering on the edge of insolvency discourages state and local officials from moving ahead with bigger and more important projects that take many years to build. In 2012, Congress finally pieced together a series of one-time tax changes and spending cuts to programs unrelated to transportation in order to keep the trust fund solvent for about two years. Now, the money is nearly gone.
"Tell Congress we can't slap a Band-Aid on our transportation system any longer," Foxx urged state and local officials at a stop Monday to view one of Ohio's biggest construction projects. Other states on the tour are Kentucky, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
Foxx is promoting Obama's four-year, $302 billion plan to shore up the trust fund with savings from proposed changes to corporate tax laws. The White House has said as much as $150 billion could come from its proposal to close corporate loopholes, such as ones that encourage U.S. companies to invest overseas.
"I feel it's clearly a crisis," Fox said in an interview, "but we have a responsibility to put a proposal out there that casts a longer-term vision, that helps Congress and the country quite frankly think past our noses, and that's what we're doing."
It would also be a one-time fix, but it would generate enough money to ratchet up transportation for several years. Rep. David Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the House's tax-writing committee, has also proposed a one-time, $126.5 billion infusion into the trust fund over a period of eight years. But his plan is part of a much broader rewrite of corporate laws, which would require heavy-lifting from Congress at any time, but especially in the hyper-partisan atmosphere of an election year.
"There doesn't seem to be much of an appetite to go after corporate tax reform this year, which is the only long term funding source that has been proposed by both the administration and Congress," said Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington transportation think tank.
But Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, told reporters last week that "what seems to be coming forward as a consensus is a piece of tax reform" rather than shifting money from the general treasury or raising fuel taxes.
Foxx cited the modernization of Interstate 75, which rumbles through the heart of this middle-sized Ohio city, as an example of the kind of much needed improvements communities want but may have to forgo. The $381 million project is intended to expand the highway's capacity, reduce traffic congestion, and eliminate dangerous and confusing left-hand exits. More than a third of the project's cost is being paid with trust fund dollars.
The interstate highway program, launched in 1956, has been funded primarily through federal gas and diesel taxes under the principle that users of the system should pay for its construction and maintenance. But it's been clear for nearly a decade that fuel taxes haven't been keeping pace with transportation needs as the nation's population grows and its infrastructure ages.
The 18.4 cents a gallon federal gas tax was last increased in 1993 as part of a deal between President Bill Clinton and Congress to raise money to help reduce the federal deficit and pay for transportation programs. Clinton was fiercely criticized by Republicans as a tax-raiser, and the issue was one of several reasons Democrats lost control of the House and Senate the following year.
It was a lesson lawmakers in both parties took to heart.
"People don't want to vote to increase the gas tax," LaHood, a former Republican congressman, said in an interview.
With encouragement from Congress, some states are stepping up their use of tolls to help pay for projects. But tolls aren't practical for all projects.
"Congress is stymied," said John Horsley, former executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. "We're all scratching our heads."
ATLANTA (AP) — Gov. Nathan Deal's re-election campaign will be running TV ads from now until the May 20 primary in a significant statewide buy.
Spokeswoman Jen Talaber says the Deal campaign will be spending more than $1 million to air the ad beginning Wednesday. The ad argues Deal has lowered taxes, created jobs and made Georgia "the number one place to do business."
Deal is facing two GOP challengers. Neither state schools Superintendent John Barge nor ex-Dalton Mayor David Pennington has launched a TV ad. Both trail Deal significantly in fundraising.
State Sen. Jason Carter is running unopposed in the Democratic primary. He has yet to buy TV advertising, stockpiling his cash for after the primary. Deal had $3.9 million in the bank as of March 31, while Carter reported $1.6 million.
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The bodies of the young men in the photographs are emaciated, their bones protruding. Starvation was only one form of torture they endured. Some bear the marks of strangulation. Others have vivid bruises and welts from being beaten.
On Tuesday, the Security Council will meet privately to view projected slides of the dead, who offer mute testimony to the savagery of a Syrian civil war in which more than 150,000 have died.
Ten of the photos were publicly released in January in a study known as the "Caesar Report," which was funded by the government of Qatar, a major backer of the opposition and one of the countries most deeply involved in the Syrian conflict. More will be seen Tuesday by the council.
The photos could not be independently confirmed.
France, which is hosting the closed-door meeting, says the photos to be displayed are part of a collection of 55,000 digital images of Syrians who were tortured and slain by Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. France says a majority of them were collected by a Syrian military police photographer code-named "Caesar," who smuggled them out on flash drives when he defected.
Syria's Justice Ministry has dismissed the photos and accompanying report as "politicized and lacking objectiveness and professionalism," a "gathering of images of unidentified people, some of whom have turned out to be foreigners." The ministry said some of the people were militants killed in battle and others were killed by militant groups.
The presentation at the Security Council is part of a process of documenting evidence of Syrian war crimes in the hope of eventually referring the perpetrators to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
That is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Because Syria never accepted the jurisdiction of the ICC, the only way a case can be opened while Assad is in power is for the Security Council to order a referral.
Russia and China have used their veto power three times to block resolutions threatening sanctions on Syria. The hope is that Russia and China will eventually agree to an ICC referral if a resolution names both Syrian government officials and rebels as war crimes perpetrators, according to a Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because no resolution is in the works.
U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay has been pushing the council to refer Syria to the ICC for three years, but Security Council President U. Joy Ogwu said last week there is no consensus for such a step.
Still, France's U.N. mission said in a statement that the meeting Tuesday "will also allow a discussion on the means to ensure accountability for these crimes."
Pillay said last week that abuses by both the Syrian government and rebels should be documented and brought to the international court. But she added, "you cannot compare the two. Clearly, the actions of the forces of the government ... killings, cruelty, persons in detention, disappearances, far outweigh those by the opposition."
Two of the authors of the "Caesar Report" will brief the council: David M. Crane, who was first chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and Dr. Stuart J. Hamilton, a forensic pathologist from Britain. The third author was Sir Geoffrey Nice, the lead prosecutor of former President Slobodan Milosevic before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
"Caesar" had been a crime scene photographer for the Syrian military, the report says. When the civil war began, he and his colleagues were reassigned to photograph the tortured bodies of rebels and dissidents, providing proof to the regime that its enemies had been liquidated in detention. Victims were assigned a code number. Their relatives were told that the victims had died of "a heart attack or breathing problems" and their number was reassigned to a hospital. Bodies were then buried before relatives could view them.
A relative of "Caesar" who defected early in the civil war kept in contact with him, and persuaded "Caesar" to collect the images over the next three years, the report says. The report's authors found "Caesar" to be credible when they debriefed him in January, they wrote. They said "he made it plain that he had never witnessed a single execution," though he and his team had to photograph as many as 50 bodies a day.
In the collection of 55,000 images, each body was photographed four or five times, so the authors estimate that about 11,000 victims are pictured.
"Caesar" smuggled out almost 27,000 of the images, the report said. It said the others came from similar, unnamed sources.
The forensic team examined about 5,500 of the images and found that almost all were of men aged 20 to 40; only one woman was pictured, and she was clothed; and there were no children in the images.
The forensic team found that in a representative sample of images they studied, 62 percent showed emaciation. Nineteen percent showed neck injuries, and "16 percent showed evidence of ligature marks on the neck."
Based on the systematic pattern of injuries, the report said "there is clear evidence, capable of being believed by a tribunal of fact in a court of law, of systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government" that would support "crimes against humanity" charges against the Assad regime.
SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — Two convicted sex offenders dutifully checked in with police every month and wore their GPS trackers around the clock — the rules of parole that are designed to tip off California authorities if a freed felon backslides.
Yet since last fall, authorities claim, Franc Cano and Steven Dean Gordon have raped and killed at least four women — and probably a fifth — in the seedy prostitution hangouts of Orange County.
It was data from their GPS trackers — along with cellphone records from the victims and other evidence — that helped investigators link them to the killings, police said.
"That was one of the investigative tools we used to put the case together," Anaheim Police Chief Raul Quezada said at a news conference Monday.
Cano, 27, and Gordon, 45, were arrested by investigators on Friday. Each was charged Monday with four felony counts of special circumstances murder and four felony counts of rape.
If convicted, they could face a minimum sentence of life without parole or the death penalty. Their scheduled arraignment Tuesday was postponed to May 19 and they remained in custody without bail.
A public defender appointed for both men asked a Superior Court judge to have Cano receive a medical exam, citing a range of health problems.
The men had known each other at least since 2012, when they cut off their GPS trackers and, using fake names, fled to Las Vegas, where they stayed at the Circus Circus Hotel & Casino for two weeks before they were rearrested, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Nevada.
While out on parole, police believe the men killed three women in Santa Ana last October and November and another woman in Anaheim earlier this year. All had links to prostitution.
Quezada said authorities were confident there is a fifth victim and perhaps more.
Investigators "put a stop to a serial killing that would likely have continued beyond this point," District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said.
The department has contacted other places with missing-persons cases across the country.
Kianna Jackson, 20, of Las Vegas arrived in Santa Ana the first week of October for a court hearing on four misdemeanor charges of prostitution and loitering to commit prostitution. Her mother said she stopped responding to her text messages soon after she arrived in Santa Ana.
She checked into a Costa Mesa hotel but never paid the bill or checked out, and her belongings were found there.
Josephine Monique Vargas, 34, was last seen Oct. 24 after leaving a family birthday party in Santa Ana to go to a store.
Martha Anaya, 28, asked her boyfriend to pick up their 5-year-old daughter so she could work on Nov. 12, then stopped responding to his messages later that night. She had been planning a birthday party for her daughter.
Santa Ana investigators didn't initially realize they were looking for murder victims, police Chief Carlos Rojas said.
Instead, police considered them missing persons. Investigators searched a canyon, examined the women's cellphone records, alerted hospitals, put the word out on social media and even checked motels the women were known to frequent but were unable to find them.
Then, on March 14, the naked body of Jarrae Nykkole Estepp, 21, was found on a conveyor belt at an Anaheim trash-sorting plant.
It was the key that broke the case, authorities said.
In the weeks before the discovery, Estepp had become a regular on a strip of Beach Boulevard in Anaheim long known for prostitution, police said.
Estepp had "a similar profile to our victims; we were able to ... move forward," Rojas said.
Investigators planned to search for the bodies of the three Santa Ana victims, he said.
Cano and Gordon each served time after being convicted in separate cases of lewd and lascivious acts with a child under 14.
Gordon was convicted in 1992 and has a 2002 kidnapping conviction, according to the Orange County district attorney's office. Cano's conviction dates to 2008, prosecutors said.
After their Las Vegas escapade, Cano and Gordon pleaded guilty to failure to register as a sex offender. They were ordered to provide DNA samples and have their computers monitored by federal agents, according to the federal documents, which were first obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
The men also checked in with Anaheim police every 30 days, as required, and provided updated photos, fingerprints and addresses, Anaheim police Lt. Bob Dunn said.
In fact, both men checked in earlier this month, Dunn said.
Cano was wearing a state-issued ankle monitor and Gordon was wearing a federal GPS device, he said.
Associated Press writers Anthony McCartney and Daisy Nguyen in Los Angeles and Amy Taxin in Santa Ana contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON (AP) — A high-tech screening tool for cervical cancer is facing pushback from more than a dozen patient groups, who warn that the genetic test could displace a simpler, cheaper and more established mainstay of women's health: the Pap smear.
The new test from Roche uses DNA to detect the human papillomavirus, or HPV, which causes nearly all cases of cervical cancer. While such technology has been available for years, Roche now wants the FDA to approve its test as a first-choice option for cervical cancer screening, bypassing the decades-old Pap test.
But a number of women's groups — including the American Medical Women's Association and Our Bodies Ourselves — warn that moving to a DNA-based testing model would be a "radical shift" in medical practice that could lead to confusion, higher costs and overtreatment.
"It replaces a safe and effective well-established screening tool and regimen that has prevented cervical cancer successfully in the U.S. with a new tool and regimen not proven to work in a large U.S. population," state the groups in a letter to FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg. The letter, dated Monday, is signed by 17 patient advocacy groups, including Consumers Union, the Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund and the National Alliance for Hispanic Health.
Chief among the advocates' concerns is that HPV-only testing could lead to overtreatment of younger women who carry the virus but have little risk of developing actual cancer. Most sexually active young people will contract HPV, though their bodies usually eliminate the virus within a few months. Only years-long infections develop into cancer.
"Unfortunately the HPV test by itself isn't very useful because so many young women have HPV that will disappear without any treatment," said Diana Zuckerman of the Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund. "Having an HPV test without also getting a Pap smear to check for problems is going to scare a lot of women who are not developing cervical cancer."
An FDA spokeswoman said the agency could not comment on the letter since it deals with a product under review.
For decades the Pap test was the only screening option for cervical cancer — and it's had a remarkably successful track record. The number of cervical cancer cases reported in the U.S. has decreased more than 50 percent in the past 30 years, primarily due to increased Pap screening. Still, an estimated 12,000 cases of cervical cancer are expected to be diagnosed this year, a fact that has spurred development of genetic tests like the one from Roche and other test makers.
Medical guidelines have been evolving rapidly to try and incorporate both techniques. Under the latest guidelines from the American Cancer Society, a Pap test is recommended every two years for women in their 20s. Women 30 and older can have a Pap test every three years or co-testing with Pap and an HPV test every five years.
HPV testing is not recommended for women in their 20s because it increases the odds of more invasive testing that can leave the cervix less able to handle pregnancy later in life.
But Roche is seeking FDA approval to market its test to women age 25 and up.
That approach was endorsed unanimously last month by a panel of FDA advisers who voted 13-0 that Roche's cobas HPV test appears safe and effective as a first-choice screening tool. The FDA is weighing that recommendation as it considers approval the company's application.
Despite the overwhelming endorsement, patient advocates say FDA approval would fly in the face of current medical guidelines, none of which recommend testing with HPV alone for younger women. They point out that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which sets federal medical guidelines, gave HPV testing a "D'' rating in women under age 30, warning that testing could lead to "unnecessary treatment and the potential for adverse pregnancy outcomes."
Even physicians who support HPV testing as an important option warn that introducing a DNA-only testing regimen may lead to confusion that disrupts care. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says many physicians are already confused by the two existing testing options: Pap alone or Pap with HPV testing.
"Introducing a third screening alternative will likely further increase confusion, and the risk to women of getting either over or under screened," the group said in comments at the FDA meeting last month. The group, which represents 57,000 U.S. obstetricians and gynecologists, did not sign the letter sent to FDA this week.
Finally there is the cost. An HPV test costs between $80 and $100, at least twice as much as a $40 Pap. And under Roche's proposal, women who test positive for HPV would be referred for colposcopy, a more invasive testing procedure that can cost up to $500.
All these factors have consumer advocates urging the FDA to break from its advisers and deny first-choice status to the Roche test.
"Sometimes the FDA overrules the advisory committee and it's OK," said Dr. Susan Wood, a former FDA official who now directors the Jacobs Institute of Women's Health.