Transportation panel chairman stuck between Obama, House GOP leaders

Rep. John Mica is in a tough spot.

Like President Obama, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman is a backer of high-speed rail. But House Republican leaders, to put it simply, are not as enamored of the idea.

The Florida GOP lawmaker was caught on camera following the president’s State of the Union speech last month telling the president he is the “best cheerleader” for high-speed rail. Their exchange came after President Obama signed a copy of the speech for the 10-term lawmaker. Conservative-leaning blogs took note of the exchange.

Mica, though, is no liberal.

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He voted against the stimulus and its so-called “shovel-ready” projects. This week, he ripped the administration’s $53 billion plan to invest in national high-speed rail over six years.

“This is like giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio,” Mica said in reaction to Vice President Biden’s unveiling of the plan on Tuesday.

Despite the barb, the Obama administration believes it can work with Mica.
 
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman who served with Mica in the House, recently predicted that the long-stalled transportation reauthorization bill will be passed by this summer.

Many GOP freshmen and leadership officials scoff at “investing” in transportation, but Mica is far less skeptical.

But while Mica and administration officials agree on the need for improvements to the nation’s transportation system, they don’t agree on how much the federal government should pay for them. Mica prefers more reliance on private-sector funding.

“I’m a strong advocate of high-speed rail where it makes sense. Where does it make sense, first of all? The Northeast corridor,” Mica said in an interview with The Hill.

Mica said he was “teasing” Obama after the president announced his intention to give “80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail” over the next 25 years.

“[Obama] knows I’ve been very critical of their high-speed rail program. Amtrak hijacked 76 of the 78 projects,” he said of the $10.5 billion that the administration has doled out since 2009 for high-speed rail development.

“I think a lot of the awards were political,” Mica said, referring to money sent to states such as Wisconsin and Ohio as seed money for high-speed rail projects.

The opposition from the newly elected GOP governors in those states prompted LaHood to divert nearly $1.2 billion in stimulus funds initially allocated for Wisconsin and Ohio.

Mica said the administration has spent money on “marginal projects,” as opposed to focusing on the Northeast corridor, that he believes are being protected by Biden, a frequent rider of Amtrak.

But Mica left the door open for compromise with the administration on the issue.

“If [the administration] is willing to put the Northeast corridor up for public-private partnership,” Mica explained, he would be ready to make a deal on a high-speed rail measure.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) is working with Republicans as they attempt to move high-speed rail to the Northeast corridor.
“It’s a classic example of where we have an opportunity to compromise. Everybody wants to see high-speed rail, everybody wants the jobs and the commerce that will flow from it, and the question becomes, ‘How do we get there?’” Larson said.

Yet the parties differ on the degree to which private business should be invested in implementing the initiative. Mica says private interests should pay for the building and operating of a railway system, while Democrats want to let Amtrak continue to operate the passenger rail system.

“John’s a reasonable guy. Albeit he’s dug in on that point, but I think there’s opportunity to work these things through,” Larson explained.
On Tuesday, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) criticized additional spending on high-speed rail.

“We have to reassess priorities given the dire nature of our fiscal state. … And I have said now that I am not in favor of additional monies that we don’t have to be spent on those projects and would certainly look for ways to leverage the private sector to get it involved as far as that kind of activity is concerned,” Cantor said.

Mica has a “huge job” on his hands, according to Smart Growth America Institute President Parris Glendening.

The former two-term Maryland governor told The Hill that “on some of these issues, there must be accommodations — an option of not having any high-speed rail proceed at all, or serious cutbacks in mass transit, I believe is just not a viable option. I believe that Chairman Mica understands this as well.”

Mica’s focus now is to craft a transportation authorization bill that must attract the support of House Republican leaders, the White House and the Senate.

In the last Congress, then-Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) strongly criticized the White House for repeatedly thwarting his efforts to pass a transportation bill. After moving the stimulus and healthcare bills, the White House was wary of moving a nearly $500 billion highway bill.

Mica said there was another factor at play.

“They were afraid that if he brought it up with a gas tax and it passed, then it could hurt the Democrats [politically],” Mica said, noting that Republicans opposed that provision as well.

Even though some Republicans view a transportation authorization bill as a job-creator, the GOP’s emphasis on cutting spending does not bode well for a highway bill. In order to accomplish his goal, Mica will have to be very creative.

LaHood told The Hill on Wednesday that he’s met many times with Mica and key Democrats in the Senate.

“The reason that I’ve had so many meetings with Chairman Mica and also Sen. [Barbara] Boxer [D-Calif.] and Sen. [Jay] Rockefeller [D-W.Va.] is because … we’d love to have a bill on the president’s desk by the August recess,” LaHood said.

Both Boxer and Rockefeller chair committees with jurisdiction on transportation in the upper chamber.

LaHood said that the president’s budget, scheduled to be released on Monday, will contain the Department of Transportation’s “principles for a transportation authorization.”

Efforts to move a six-year transportation bill will begin anew next week when Mica’s committee will convene in ranking member Nick Rahall’s (D) West Virginia district.

Rahall calls his relationship with Mica “hunky-dory.”

“[Mica’s] coming to my district, kicking off his whole round of hearings in my hometown next Monday,” Rahall said.

The off-site hearing will be the first of about a dozen such hearings that Mica has planned to take place around the country. Boxer will attend a hearing that will take place in Los Angeles.