Elections Finance High-Speed Rail

What Value for Empirical Claims in the Development of a National Rail Network?

» America 2050 releases a report comparing potential rail investments across the country. But political leadership, not scientific analysis, will be what advances the construction of new infrastructure in the United States.

There is something very appealing about the idea that governmental authorities could go about establishing strict, empirically defined guidelines based on “objectives” or “targets” and thereafter identify and fund the right investments in transportation. The argument made by many reformers is that such a system could allow federal, state, and local governments in the United States to use “objective” measures to compare and contrast potential investments and then fund only those that meet the highest standards.

This, in some ways, is what America 2050 is attempting to do in its most recent publication, High-Speed Rail in America. By analyzing several thousand corridors crisscrossing the nation in respect to such factors as population, employment, connectivity, congestion, and job types, the organization strives to show which corridors would be best for rail investment. The results — which rank highly such connections as Washington-New York, Los Angeles-San Diego, and Chicago-Milwaukee — are reassuring to those who have already identified those corridors as priorities. The report’s conclusion implies that the next step is simply to move forward, funding the links that would be most effective.*

If only it were so simple.

Why are California, Florida, and Illinois investing billions of dollars in rail upgrades today while other states, like New York and Pennsylvania, doing almost nothing? Not because the projects in the former states were more rational investments according to federal government grant-givers; indeed, the America 2050 report gives much higher marks to lines between Philadelphia and Harrisburg and New York and Albany than those between Chicago and St. Louis or Tampa and Orlando, for instance.

Rather, leadership in some states has been lacking; state officials in places like New York have been unwilling to commit the local funds or rights-of-way to their respective rail projects, so they have not received real backing from Washington. Perhaps this would be a problem in a perfect world, but we live in a society in which politics matter. If Florida eventually commits to a high-speed rail line, it will be because previous leadership in the form of Governor Charlie Crist made the deals to make it possible and current Governor Rick Scott agreed.

These are ultimately decisions founded on local support for a project: No matter what a scientific approach may suggest, the only way high-speed rail can advance in this country is by having charismatic leaders promote good projects that appeal to the citizenry. If that sometimes means building projects that are less cost-effective than others, then so be it.

In the American federal system, Washington cannot easily come down from high-up and inform rural states and non-urban jurisdictions that they simply do not qualify for intercity rail funds. Such an approach, like it or not, would not fly in a Congress that is dominated by politicians from rural states and suburban districts. Nor can the government simply announce that it wants to fund one or two lines, like a link between Washington and Boston, because doing so would fly in the face of the idea of a national network, essential for any federal investment. So releasing a report like America 2050’s is inconceivable for the national Department of Transportation unless it wants to have its funding eliminated by the legislature.

There are several conceivable ways to avoid this problem: One, assuming the federal government continues its commitment to the high-speed rail mode, it could simply draw a map of thousands of miles of lines connecting the country and agree to fund every one. This, more or less, was how the Interstate Highway System was conceived and built — and it had nothing to do with the “objective” guidelines that underlie the America 2050 report but everything to do with ensuring that every state in the union got its share.

Two, Washington could fund nothing at all, giving up in face of the insurmountable difficulty of trying to convince legislators from Oklahoma to fund rail projects in Oregon. This could encourage states or groups of states to go about funding projects themselves, a perfectly reasonable possibility, but one that may be difficult in an era in which the idea of state-level government entrepreneurship is absent from the discussion.

Or, finally, the federal government could continue awarding grants to the states that are most enthusiastic about their respective rail projects and hope that members of Congress don’t get too upset about the fact that their states aren’t getting anything. This seems to be the most likely path forward, but it will not likely result in major funding increases for a high-speed rail network since the national consensus in favor of it has yet to be cultivated.

No matter what, the road forward on establishing high-speed rail strategy in the United States is likely to be a bumpy one. While reports like America 2050’s may add to the momentum, helping to demonstrate some of the mode’s advantages, they do not provide the basis for a nationwide system by which to judge and then fund new lines. That will only come from leadership, both in Washington and in the state capitals.

* The High-Speed Rail in America report has its flaws. The report’s authors note the following:

“Instead of evaluating and comparing precise ridership estimates from the states (e.g. X riders in California versus Y riders in Texas) based on inadequate data and varying assumptions, we propose an alternative assessment framework that considers the various factors or parameters that influence ridership without attempting to pinpoint ridership explicitly.”

The fundamental problem with the report is that it has no context: The study lays down a number of parameters for comparison, such as regional population, transit connectivity, and the like, but it does not have any empirical data to show the relatively importance of these criteria in real-world high-speed rail networks. In other words, the authors have set about comparing corridors in a manner that may — or, just as likely, may not — have anything to do with actual ridership. (This is a mistake I’ve made in the past, I admit.)

In the future, such a study should be backed by evidence about the importance of each of these criteria based on ridership on other countries’ systems. It would also be beneficial to include cost evaluations — for instance, if a New York-Boston line would attract twice as many riders per mile as one between Tampa and Orlando, the America 2050 report implies that the former is a better deal than the latter. But what if the Florida line cost less than half as much per mile as the Northeastern one?

Image above: Spanish countryside along AVE route, from Flickr user Laura Padgett (cc)

Congress Elections Finance President

After Two Years of Democratic Control in Washington, A Transportation Roundup

» Advances on livability and intercity rail were overshadowed by the inability of the Congress to legislate multi-year transportation funding. Republican control of the House beginning in January changes the equation significantly.

The 2008 elections brought the full reigns of the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government under the control of the Democratic Party, power that enabled the passage of the stimulus, health care reform, and, this month, a huge package of tax cuts. Though transportation policy was clearly not the priority of either the Obama Administration or the Congress, the decision by voters last month to install a Republican Party-controlled House of Representatives is likely to alter the government’s approach on the issues quite significantly. Thus it is worth looking back to examine the record of federal government over the last two years.

The Obama Administration and the Democratic Congress have changed some aspects of federal policy significantly, advancing grant programs that reward cities for developing alternative transit systems and seriously promoting the national intercity rail project. A full-scale change in Washington’s approach to transportation, however, has yet to be accomplished.

The most significant lost cause has been, of course, the inability of the Congress to move forward on a multi-year transportation reauthorization bill. Though then-Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure James Oberstar (D-MN) proposed a draft of such legislation in June 2009, his effort went mostly unnoticed on Capitol Hill. It was never brought to the attention of the full House of Representatives and the relevant Senate committees never bothered to consider it.

The biggest problem: Party control over Washington or not, the Democrats could not come to any sort of agreement about how to fund transportation, an increasing problem because gas tax revenues are falling relative to both inflation and the public need. President Obama refused to consider raising fuel fees in the midst of the recession and directed his press secretary to shoot down a promising alternative, the vehicle miles traveled fee. This meant repeated temporary extensions of the expired transportation legislation, SAFETEA-LU, paid for through general fund expenditures rather than the fuel tax. These problems have yet to be resolved, and are unlikely to change over the course of the next two years.

Mr. Oberstar’s proposal would have transformed thinking about national transportation spending: It proposed shifting spending to two reserves, one dedicated to maintaining the existing system and then other to ramping up new capacity. Significantly, it would have required some allocations to be distributed in a mode-neutral manner, meaning that in some corridors, a public transit project might be picked by a local agency as the best use of funds instead of a highway expansion. This would have represented a major advance over current affairs, since currently roads and transit funding are divvied up into separate pots. But the effort went nowhere.

Thus in terms of allocations towards highway programs, transit maintenance, and new rail projects, the Department of Transportation has changed little. Several major new transit capital projects have been approved to receive major New Start grants from Washington, including two light rail lines in Houston, two more in Denver, and the San Francisco Central Subway, among others. And funding on the nation’s biggest transportation projects under construction, including New York’s Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access, Dallas’ Green Line, and Seattle’s University Link, continued apace. (The decision by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to cancel the ARC Tunnel was depressing for the public interest, but it reflected no failure on the part of Washington.)

Yet these projects would have probably been funded whether Democrats have swept into power or not. Other measures have been far more indicative of the changes that have taken place over the past two years.

The failure of the Democrats to move a transportation bill forward was partially resolved by the passage of the stimulus in early February 2009. That $800 billion bill provided a huge shot in the arm to transportation projects all over the country, giving $46.2 billion to highway, transit, and rail. Though highway expenditures continued to receive the majority of funds, their share of total spending was lower than in a typical year’s federal transportation allocations. Without these essential funds, thousands of transportation projects, underfunded by local and state agencies, would have come to a halt.

But the big news was the $8 billion the bill included for intercity rail, an allocation added personally by President Obama and far more than members of Congress had suggested in the course of their own negotiations. This infusion of funds, in addition to the $2.5 billion directed for such projects in fiscal year 2010, represented the largest-ever American public commitment to rail. Whether the program is ultimately refunded remains up in the air, especially because of the radical anti-rail stance of some Republican governors in states such as Ohio and Wisconsin. Nonetheless, this funding is enough to ensure the construction of the first segment of California’s high-speed line and finance major improvements to Amtrak corridors in Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, and Washington. Florida’s fast train between Tampa and Orlando — to be the first such project in the country — is now fully financed and will be built, as long as new Governor Rick Scott (R) agrees to the program.

The stimulus put a (temporary) end to a highly egregious anti-transit rule that provided higher tax rebates to drivers than public transportation riders.

Finally, the stimulus provided to the Department of Transportation $1.5 billion in funding to distribute to projects at the discretion of the Secretary. These TIGER grants were offered to mobility programs that were not being funded under traditional means. When grantees were announced in February 2010, hundreds of millions of dollars were provided to freight rail improvement programs and upgrades to transportation terminals. In addition, streetcar projects in Dallas, Detroit, and Tucson received big endorsements, starting off a national streetcar boom.

The department used congressionally allocated funds to finance another $600 million in TIGER II grants unveiled in October 2010. These sponsored streetcar lines for Atlanta and Salt Lake City and several freight projects, among others. In addition, it provided funding for the demolition of a freeway in New Haven for the purposes of transforming it into an urban boulevard, arguably a first for U.S. transportation funding.

The Urban Circulator grants announced in December 2009 and awarded in July 2010 provided another $293 million in funds for bus improvements and streetcar construction. Though Fort Worth has apparently abandoned its planned streetcar, even after receiving a $25 million commitment from Washington, Cincinnati, Charlotte, and St. Louis — each of which also benefited from major allocations — are moving ahead. Several other cities, including Chicago, New York, and Stamford, got funding for downtown busways. Boston received $3 million for the nation’s first federally funded bike sharing program. Together, the Urban Circulator, TIGER, and TIGER II grant programs represent the government’s largest-ever contribution to small-scale transit projects, and the nation’s first major public commitment to the construction of streetcar lines.

Correspondingly, for the first time, the Department of Transportation has taken the idea of “livability” seriously and directed allocations accordingly. In March 2009, the DOT announced the Joint Sustainable Communities Initiative with the Department of Housing and Urban Development with the goal of coordinating federal transportation and housing expenditures. This was a major demonstration of the government’s commitment to the effort to plan mobility and development in sync, an idea that has been accepted by urban planners for years but largely off the radar of government officials.

In addition, in January 2010, the agency announced that it would be changing the way it judged transit New Start capital grants to move beyond the assumption that cost-effectiveness based on “travel time savings” is the most important indicator of a good transportation project. This policy move opened up the possibility of funding “slow” transit, arguably the best sort for the creation of walkable neighborhoods.

In Fall 2010, the Obama Administration began pushing for a new transportation bill. The President announced that he wanted a $50 billion “downpayment” on transportation infrastructure with the ultimate goal of constructing 4,000 miles of railways and 150 miles of runways, on top of renovating 150,000 miles of roads. This package — a sort of second stimulus — would be the first step in a multi-year transportation bill. But the Congress’ focus instead on tax cuts won the day, and this transportation focus seemingly disappeared.

Two years of Democratic Party power in Washington, then, meant quite a few improvements to the nation’s transportation policy-making, bringing to the fore projects that have been largely ignored by the government for decades. The Obama Administration and its allies in Congress have made clear their collective interest in funding projects that are founded on the idea that transportation can be an important element in the creation of livable cities. This represents a significant and positive change from past federal policy. But there is more work to be done.

Republican control of the House of Representatives is unlikely to simplify the extension of many of the new programs undertaken over the past two years — from high-speed rail to TIGER. Though these programs have faced some controversy and should be made more transparent, they have been well-managed, largely fair in their distribution of grants, and, crucially, have spread funding to cities across the country, in both Red and Blue states. In order to assure their future, President Obama will have to articulate their positive effects nationwide and advance ways to fund them that appear bipartisan and consensus-worthy.

Will he make the effort to do so when the nation has so many other pressing needs? Is there enough political support on either side of the aisle to maintain a major federal commitment to transport policies that do not revolve around the construction of highways?

I should note as a postscript that Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who had no concrete previous transportation experience, has taken to his job quite seriously and is deserving of praise. Though in his previous post — as a congressman from Peoria, Illinois — he represented an area relatively unfamiliar with the mobility needs and problems of the nation’s biggest cities, he has proven himself to be a strong advocate of transit and intercity rail programs. Compared to the experience under President George W. Bush, Mr. LaHood has been practically a dream; Mr. Bush repeatedly asked Congress to reduce expenditures on Amtrak to zero (the legislature fortunately declined to do so) and the Secretary of Transportation in his later years, Mary Peters, almost shut the doors on one of the nation’s biggest and most important transit projects, the extension of the Washington Metrorail to Dulles. Similarly, Ms. Peters was unwilling to spent federal money on streetcars and hoped to replace most light rail plans with cheaper bus rapid transit lines. What a change we have seen in Mr. LaHood.

Elections Finance

Growing Conservative Strength Puts Transit Improvements in Doubt

» The next few years are likely to be difficult for advocates of public transportation because of increased hostility to government investment.

1987, 1991, 1995, 1998, and 2005 share a significant feature: In each of those years, members of Congress were able to come together to pass a multi-year bill that codified how the U.S. government was to collect revenues for and allocate expenditures on transportation. Not coincidentally, in each of those years, one political party controlled both the House and Senate.

In the 112th Congress, set to enter office in just one month, Democrats will run the Senate and Republicans the House. This split control will make passing any legislation difficult. Unlike in those aforementioned years, there is little chance that this group of legislators will be able to pass a multi-year transportation bill either in 2011 or 2012.

These circumstances, combined with increasingly strident conservative rhetoric about the need to reduce government expenditures, may fundamentally challenge the advances the Obama Administration and the Democratic Congress have been able to make over the past two years in expanding the nation’s intercity rail network, promoting a vision for livable communities, and reinforcing funding for urban transit. Continuing those efforts would require identifying sources of increased revenue and a steadfast commitment to reducing the role of the automobile in American society.

But there is little support for increased taxes from any side of the political table and there is a fundamental aversion from the mainstream Republican Party to the investments that have defined the government’s recent transportation strategy. Meanwhile, declining power of the purse resulting from a fuel tax last increased in 1993 means that the existing situation is unacceptable, at least if there is any sense that something must be done to expand investment in transportation infrastructure. Gridlock — and myopic thinking about how to improve mobility in the United States — will ensue.

The opening shot in this game was fired this fall by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose decision to cancel the ARC tunnel connecting his state to New York City was framed in the rhetoric of fiscal conservatism, his fear of cost overruns evidently outweighing the massive economic gains his constituency would have received thanks to improved connections to Manhattan. Now Mr. Christie is suing the federal government to prevent it from taking back the $271 million it granted to the state for the project, despite the fact that the New Starts grant agreement New Jersey signed with the Federal Transit Administration to receive funding clearly states that entities that fail to complete the projects for which they have received federal aid must return the grant in full to Washington.*

Governor Christie, of course, is not alone in his approach: His colleagues in Wisconsin and Ohio, newly elected Republicans soon to enter gubernatorial offices, have promised to shut down their local federally funded intercity rail corridors that they fear will overwhelm them with future operating expenses. Of course, those complaints are patently absurd when put in context of each state’s respective overall transportation budget. Wisconsin, for instance, spends more than a billion dollars on roadway construction annually and would have been asked to contribute a mere $7.5 million to train operations. Is such a small contribution really such a huge price to pay for a transportation alternative?

Members of Congress have been all too ready to support these efforts to close the book on the nation’s nascent intercity rail program before it can begin. A Republican Congressman introduced a bill this week that would rescind stimulus funds not yet obligated, a move that would pull $6.3 billion out of state hands, most of it designated for passenger rail.

Common across this discussion is the claim that investing in transportation infrastructure can be wasteful — this is an argument that has been made successfully since Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere” achieved national notoriety during the 2008 presidential campaign. And indeed, there are plenty of examples of spending on projects that are less than economically beneficial. Yet it has become clear that the preponderance of criticism is being heaped on infrastructure that is designated for non-automobile transportation, in spite of the fact that the Alaskan bridge was, after all, for cars.

Mr. Christie is considering allocating to road improvement $1.25 billion once supposed to help to pay for the ARC tunnel. Outgoing Ohio Senator George Voinovich is hoping to change the law before he leaves to allow his state to transfer to highway construction funds once designated for the Cincinnati-Cleveland intercity rail line. The expected new speaker of the House, Ohio Congressman John Boehner, simply doesn’t think the federal government should be getting involved with funding bike and pedestrian improvement projects, which are at the heart of the Obama Administration’s livable cities goals. Cutbacks to the overall federal transportation budget, at least according to preliminary reports on GOP efforts, are likely to hit transit far harder than highways.

Some have suggested that this is acceptable policy, that the Obama Administration was failing to address the needs and desires of the U.S. population in its focus on developing new and better modes of transportation. I would suggest that the alternative is disastrous: More sprawl, more environmental devastation, more repetitive, identity-less cities.

Thus the issue here is not so much fiscal sanity as it is remarkably differing visions about how Americans should get around in the future. Whereas the current Congress and the White House have staked out relatively progressive policies in terms of providing adequate and equal funding to non-automobile modes of transportation, the incoming House leadership appears poised to take advantage of fears about increases in the federal budget deficit to reduce spending on everything but roads.

There is, as always, an alternative. The bipartisan — though ideologically more right-wing than centrist — National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility suggested in its plan for reducing the nation’s debt a 15¢ per gallon increase in the fuel tax, though it said little about how exactly those new revenues would be utilized. A more progressive group called Our Fiscal Security released a far more equitable program for reducing the U.S. deficit that would introduce a carbon tax (or cap and trade) and expand the motor fuels tax by 25¢ or more per gallon. These revenues, the group notes, could go towards expanded public transportation for the purposes of “reduc[ing] our dependency on fuel and increas[ing] productivity by reducing the amount of time people sit in traffic.” Neither group’s ambitions, however, appears to be supported by enough members of Congress to be taken completely seriously.

This adds up to a thoroughly inconvenient situation for the future of U.S. transportation. Despite a well-documented need for more spending, the newly Republican House is unlikely to authorize any new revenue source for the purpose. Based on recent decisions by party members at the state and national level, that will mean a renewed emphasis on roadway projects and less proposed funding for transit. How will the GOP delegation be able to compromise with the Democratic Senate? Any effort to make 2011 replicate the achievements of past years in which transportation bills were passed seems bound to fail.

* See U.S. Code Title 49, Section 5309 (G)(3)(B): “If an applicant does not carry out the project for reasons within the control of the applicant, the applicant shall repay all Government payments made under the work agreement plus reasonable interest and penalty charges the Secretary establishes in the agreement.”

Congress Elections Finance

A New Political Reality Settling in for National Transportation Financing

» Austerity measures that may be introduced in the House could result in significant cutbacks in support for transit. Meanwhile, the decision by Republican legislators to phase out earmarks may reduce support for a future transportation bill.

Tanya Snyder of Streetsblog Capitol Hill broke the news last Friday that House Republicans are planning to push to “stabilize” the Highway Trust Fund by cutting back expenditures to meet revenues without raising any taxes in the process. The result would be a large decrease in overall federal transportation funding — a potential reduction in spending by $7 to 8 billion a year from around $50 billion today. According to Snyder’s sources, transit financing would be hit especially hard, seeing its annual appropriation cut from $8 billion to $5 billion.

This proposal, though it has yet to be announced publicly (and, indeed, it may not represent the eventual thinking of the House Republican leadership) and though it would likely fail to pass through the Senate, nevertheless adds another layer of difficulty to the already almost impossible process of creating a new national transportation bill.

To make matters even more complicated, Republican members in both houses of Congress followed through last week on their commitment to eliminate their demands for earmarks, a move that will reduce the support of individual members for transportation spending in general. 2011 is likely to shape up as a wild ride in the annals of highway and transit funding.

What was never really in question was the fact that a temporary extension of current federal spending on transportation was coming soon, the fault of a Congress that has for two years been unwilling to step forward in support of improved financing mechanisms for transportation. Departing Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Jim Oberstar (D-MN) recently called for a year-long extension; likely new Chairman John Mica (R-FL) has suggested he would support a six-month lengthening of the current law. No one is clamoring for an immediate shut-down in spending on popular road works. The Highway Trust Fund, filled by fuel taxes, has lacked adequate revenues to pay for all of the highway and transit construction the U.S. has undertaken over the last two years — and even that is just half of what some experts argue is necessary for the adequate maintenance of the nation’s mobility infrastructure.

The Republican proposal as suggested by Streetblog’s Snyder would simply limit spending to what the Highway Trust Fund can raise through the existing federal 18.4¢ gas tax, eliminating the possibility of transferring “general,” income tax-sourced revenues to transportation. But the results of that policy would be devastating; not only has the revenue source not been adjusted to inflation since 1993 — meaning that its value has steadily declined — but people are increasingly driving less and replacing their vehicles with more fuel-efficient cars. The overall effect is a loss in infrastructure-building funding.

Democrats, who despite losing control over the House of Representatives remain in power at the Senate, are unlikely to follow through with these efforts to reduce federal spending on transportation, at least considering their collectively pro-investment stance over the past few years. No one, however, seems to have any courage to propose funding transportation by any manner other than through general fund transfers (such as raising the gas tax), and so if Republicans mount opposition to the idea, the whole program could be put into question.*

GOP members have been arguing for months that a huge percentage of spending at the federal level is waste, an argument that is appealing to a frustrated public experiencing the continued negative effects of a long recession. Thus an attempt to keep transportation spending in check may sound reasonable. As does, apparently, the ban on earmarks, which many Republicans and some Democrats argue are equivalent to political advertisements in which an influential congressperson or senator inserts language in a bill benefiting some minor and unimportant project purely because he or she hopes his or her constituents will notice the work being done for their district.

But earmarks have played an important role in producing bipartisan support for transportation bills in the past. As Robert Puentes recently noted, in the last bill passed in 2005 (SAFETEA-LU), there were 6,373 earmarks distributed pretty evenly across the nation thanks to “contributions” from a number of legislators involved in the bill’s writing. The bill was supported by 412 House members, compared to 8 who voted against it; In the Senate, there were only 4 opponents of the bill (mostly opponents of earmarks), compared to 91 proponents. By giving each member of Congress a local reward for the bill, the program becomes virtually universally supported, no matter the specifics of most of the legislation’s language. It may have been coercion, but it resulted in a funded national transportation system. What would happen now?

One solution, suggested by the generally deluded Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN), is to allow earmarks that are related to transportation, since those are, according to her, not wasteful. This in spite of the fact that much of the issue over earmarks was spurred on by the absurdities of the Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere.” And despite the fact that earmarks make up a very small proportion of overall federal spending on transportation, so bringing them back into the equation wouldn’t help matters much.

A long-term solution to these political disagreements is for now not clear. An extension in federal spending for transportation over the next month is likely, but thereafter, all bets are off.

* A spokesman for Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) contacted me after first publishing this article. He made the very good point that the Senator and Senator George Voinovich (R-OH) proposed a plan three weeks ago to increase the gas tax by 25¢ over the next three years, and that the deficit commission appointed by President Obama had itself suggested a 15¢ rise earlier this month. I should note, however, that neither of these proposals have widespread support from the Congress as a whole.

Congress DOT Elections Finance

Understanding Representative John Mica’s Transportation Agenda

» 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 saidWe 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.