» Florida Congressman has been a major supporter of high-speed rail in the past, but his approach on the issue appears opposed to that of the Obama Administration.
No one questions just how important the Northeast Corridor is to the American economy. The metropolis that encompasses Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston constitutes the world’s wealthiest mega-region and it is the United States’ densest agglomeration of people, talent, and capital. If there is any one place in the country where true high-speed rail, featuring trains traveling at speeds averaging 150 mph and up, would function effectively, it would be here.
That philosophy has been repeatedly endorsed by Republican Florida Congressman John Mica, who in January is likely to become the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure after the Republican wave in this week’s midterm elections allowed the GOP to take over the House. Mr. Mica, who has served in the Congress since 1993, will be a major player in discussions on federal transportation spending over the next two years, though he will have to negotiate with the Democratic Party-controlled Senate and the Obama Administration to advance any policy change.
Over the past few years, Congressman Mica has shown himself to be a supporter of infrastructure investments and thus seems likely to be willing to promote increased government spending on the matter. This position, however, has not been rock-solid in the past: Though President Obama’s early 2009 Stimulus included a huge down-payment to improve the nation’s highways and transit systems, Mr. Mica voted against the bill, like the rest of the Republican contingent in the House. His position in favor of transportation spending is likely to be moderated by his otherwise very conservative record, thus he will likely only be able to move forward with legislation ramping up allocations if he can convince most of the GOP to follow along.
Congressman Mica has not been particularly outspoken on most transportation issues, though he was apparently in support of former Committee Chair Jim Oberstar’s proposal for a $500 billion, six-year transportation authorization bill (Oberstar lost in this week’s election). He has also been a modest supporter of alternative mobility solutions like cycling. Yet as committee chair he has an opportunity to play an important role in determining how transportation appropriations are made and how the Department of Transportation moves forward on allocating funds for new highway, transit, and rail programs.
In previous statements, Mr. Mica has argued strongly for the development of true high-speed rail, with trains operating at very fast average speeds. In October 2009, he said “We cannot take the funding to be invested in high-speed rail – $8 billion in stimulus funds, $50 billion in the pending surface transportation bill – and try to fool people by giving them anything less than true high-speed rail service.” Only Florida and California are currently developing plans that would produce service of such quality. Similarly, he has criticized the Obama Administration’s Department of Transportation for being political in its decision-making about who has received rail grants.
From that perspective, Mr. Mica has been particularly upset about what he perceives as the lack of national investment in the Northeast Corridor, since for the reasons stated at the start of this article it would be the ideal route for high-speed rail in the United States. This week, the Congressman repeated his sense that the government had been remiss in its choices about investments. “I am a strong advocate of high-speed rail, but it has to be where it makes sense,” Mica said, according to the Associated Press. “The administration squandered the money, giving it to dozens and dozens of projects that were marginal at best to spend on slow-speed trains to nowhere.” He seems to feel that way about his own state’s project, which he has argued might be shortened from a now-planned (and virtually all funded) 84-mile route from Orlando Airport to Tampa to a 20-mile corridor between the airport and the Disney Amusement Parks.
Because of his interest in the Northeast, Congressman Mica may be a major supporter of Amtrak’s recently released 30-year, $120 billion proposal for the route between Washington and Boston. That project currently lacks funding and Mr. Mica may be interested in developing a national funding source for the project during his time as committee chair.
Unfortunately for the Northeast and Mr. Mica’s agenda, that approach would likely be difficult to undertake in the context of the United States’ federal system. For one, it is hard to imagine congresspeople from across the country supporting a project whose benefits would be concentrated in just one region. One of the major advantages of the Obama Administration’s approach to transportation has been its nationwide scope. For example, the government’s TIGER discretionary grants have been distributed to all but three states; funding for construction and planning of high-speed rail projects has gone to 36 states. In a country that prioritizes geographical equity, this seems to be an appropriate system; how would a focus on the Northeast fit in under those parameters?
Meanwhile, the Boston-Washington region itself lacks a coherent vision for high-speed rail. While states clearly do want faster train services, they have focused most of their energy and local dollars on peripheral corridors like Philadelphia-Harrisburg, Albany-Buffalo, and New Haven-Springfield. Can we expect them to alter their priorities quickly in response to Mr. Mica’s goals?
Mr. Mica has not stated that he is against any funding for projects outside of the Northeast. And his position is not necessarily in contradiction with those of the new anti-rail Republican Governors of Ohio and Wisconsin, John Kasich and Scott Walker, respectively, who on the face of it would seem to be in utter disagreement with the Congressman. In his first post-election press conference, Mr. Kasich announced that his state’s 3C plan to connect Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati via intercity rail is “dead” and that “passenger rail is not in Ohio’s future.” The current Democratic governor of Wisconsin, Jim Doyle, has shut down work on his state’s Milwaukee-to-Madison line following Mr. Walker’s election. Neither of those projects, however, fit Mr. Mica’s criteria of being true high-speed rail; both would have linked cities at speeds of less than 110 mph.
California’s proposed fast train system, which would allow passengers to journey between the huge San Francisco and Los Angeles metropolitan regions in just 2h40, seems more up Mr. Mica’s alley. Thus the federal government’s decision to grant that state billions of dollars for the Central Valley segment of the network, where trains will reach 220 mph, likely won’t be put in question by Mr. Mica. One could even imagine him asking the Federal Railroad Administration to reallocate the more than $1.2 billion in federal dollars planned for Ohio and Wisconsin to California — or the Northeast.
When it comes to developing funding sources, Mr. Mica has repeatedly argued for increasing private spending, rather than augmenting the gas tax, which he has previously labeled “dead.” He asked corporations and consultants to develop proposals for investments in high-speed rail corridors across the country in 2008 and 2009. His focus seems to be on routes that would pay for themselves over time both in terms of operations and construction. From that perspective, his statement on the matter in October 2009 was particularly interesting:
“Successful routes at competitive speeds should attract high numbers of riders and strong revenues. Those revenues could be bonded to help pay the cost of building the infrastructure. This model has been used in many successful rail projects around the world. With the right mix of public and private participation, the United States could leverage this federal investment to build high-speed rail corridors that are economically competitive and actually generate a profit.”
This implies that the Congressman wants the rail transportation system the government is developing to be self-supporting. This has not been a position held by the Obama Administration, which expected states like Ohio and Wisconsin to absorb operating losses. If Mr. Mica sticks to his guns on this matter, it could mean he will oppose future spending on loss-producing Amtrak corridors (including the politically popular long-distance routes) and perhaps also any new intercity rail line that cannot guarantee major profits. This, again, will pose problems for those who hope for a national rail program that would service rural and semi-urban areas that simply do not have the demand to support such lines. His position on these matters — only really beneficial to the biggest cities — is unlikely to appeal to many members of the predominantly non-urban Republican delegation in the Congress. Will he hold the same standard to rural highways, also the beneficiaries of net federal subsidies because of their relative under-use?
Mr. Mica, of course, will not be operating in a vacuum in the 112th Congress, since when it comes to transportation issues he will be sharing power with the rest of the GOP-controlled House, the Democratic Senate, and the White House. Agreement among the three is likely to be difficult to come by on any issue, which means that finding revenue sources to pay for a new transportation bill will be quite difficult. President Obama’s hope for a $50 billion down-payment on transportation spending could pass with bipartisan support, but that action would accomplish little more than assuring next year’s federal commitment to highways and transit. Anything more will be subject to intense controversy considering recent calls for fiscal austerity from both sides of the aisle.
Even as Democrats held control over both houses of Congress over the past two years, no agreement could be concluded about how to pay for transportation spending. Democrats and Republicans alike are hostile to the idea of using general funds (income tax-sourced) for highways and transit; nor have many seriously pushed new fuel taxes or a vehicle miles traveled fee. A protracted period of negotiation over the question of transportation funding awaits us.
Whatever Congressman Mica’s goals for transportation, he will have to operate within a labyrinthine system of conflicting goals and limited funds. Whether he — or anyone — will get anything done under those conditions remains an open question.