If Republicans Take the House, What Happens to Transportation Reform?

It’s November 3. The Republicans have won a majority in the House of Representatives.

Meet John Mica (R-FL), the new Chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Rep. John Mica (R-FL) could take the reins of the T&I Committee if the GOP wins back the House.
Rep. John Mica (R-FL) could chair the T&I Committee if the GOP wins back the House.

Will it happen? Depends which pundit you listen to or which polls you look at. It’s likely enough that some transportation advocates are concerned about what would happen to the six-year transportation reauthorization bill if Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN) is no longer Chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

With DOT Secretary Ray LaHood pushing lawmakers to move quickly on transportation, the reauthorization figures to be one of the first items on the agenda of the next Congress. A Republican majority would likely be less friendly to reform, and fiscal conservatives are likely to pull the purse strings tighter.

Now the good news: Ranking Republican John Mica (R-FL), who would almost certainly take over Oberstar’s seat, is about as transit-friendly a Republican as you can hope for. Check out this interview he did with PBS’ Blueprint America last year:

BLUEPRINT AMERICA: You are a Republican – and you support transportation and infrastructure spending?

REP. MICA: Well, I tell you though, if you’re on the Transportation Committee long enough, even if you’re a fiscal conservative, which I consider myself to be, you quickly see the benefits of transportation investment. Simply, I became a mass transit fan because it’s so much more cost effective than building a highway. Also, it’s good for energy, it’s good for the environment – and that’s why I like it.

BLUEPRINT AMERICA: If anything, you’d say that your time in Congress and on the Transportation Committee has brought you around to these ideas?

REP. MICA: Yes. And, seeing the cost of one person in one car. The cost for construction. The cost for the environment. The cost for energy. You can pretty quickly be convinced that there’s got to be a more cost effective way. It’s going to take a little time, but we have to have good projects, they have to make sense – whether it’s high-speed rail or commuter rail or light rail. We got to have some alternatives helping people – even in the rural areas – to get around.

Blogger Matt Yglesias has called Mica “a Republican worth listening to” and David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington has called him “the House’s leading pro-transit Republican.” Mica stood with Oberstar last year at the unveiling of the half-trillion dollar transportation reauthorization bill and didn’t flinch at the price tag. He fought for more transit capital funding to be added to the stimulus, saying transit infrastructure creates jobs.

Katie Drennan, Transportation for America’s legislative associate, said Mica deserves some of the credit for the cooperative nature of his committee. “He’s carried on the tradition in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee where there’s been a kind of bipartisanship you don’t see in a lot of other Congressional committees,” she said.

As for Mica’s strong support for transit and high-speed rail, Drennan said, “He sees how it’s working in the state of Florida.”

Drennan said a Mica-led committee would still be open to ideas from progressive transportation groups. But a majority-Republican committee would likely break from Oberstar’s model, despite Mica’s leanings.

“Because we’re in such a tough financial situation – with the Highway Trust Fund being broke, and folks needing to look at new revenue sources – there are conservative efforts to strip down the program to what they see as its core,” Drennan said. And to many GOP members, the core function of federal transportation investment doesn’t extend much beyond highways. “They don’t see transportation enhancements [biking and walking projects] or transit as being core to the program.”

The committee chair only controls so much, after all. With a Republican majority, even a good bill could be gutted by amendments added in committee and on the floor of the House.

  • Jeff

    For reasons often discussed on Streetsblog, any true conservative would favor mass transit over private autos. While I understand that a lot has changed over the past century, the point is that we have indeed experienced fully-privatized, subsidy-free mass transit, as was standard practice with the streetcars and railways of yesterday. Private autos, on the other hand, have relied on government subsidies from the beginning.

  • James Fujita

    @Jeff: That’s dubious reasoning.

    Under the current situation, all forms of transportation require some form of government subsidies, and so the question, for a government-hating, tax-cutting, anti-socialist true conservative would be, which form requires the fewest subsidies? Which one supports private industry the most? Which one shrinks government’s role the most?

    It would be hard to argue for the form of transportation which has government-owned vehicles.

    Now, of course, it would be a different situation if Hankyu, Tokyu, Keisei, Keio, Seibu, Tobu, Hanshin and Kintetsu private railways ran our trains, but that’s not the case…

  • Jass

    James,

    “which form requires the fewest subsidies?”
    Transit. By far.

    “Which one supports private industry the most?”
    Well, stats say transit construction involves more jobs than road construction. And buy america says the trains must come from america, unlike with cars.

  • James Fujita

    You didn’t answer my third question: “Which one shrinks government’s role the most?”

    Please understand, I support transit. But I’m trying to devil’s advocate a conservative point of view, and hopefully not a conservative strawman. Since the possibility of a GOP Congress looms, we need to know these things.

    And that third question involves more than just “lies, damn lies and statistics.” It invokes all-American notions of individual freedom vs. collective movement. And that is a bigger obstacle than the first two questions.

    And if you remove government from the equation and “privatize” transit (not just operations, but construction as well), then the question is, WHO? What American operator is going to want the job?

  • Jass

    It’s impossible to say which one shrinks governments role the most.

    Amtrak, for example, runs 95% of their trains on privately owned and maintained tracks that pay property tax.

    Greyhound runs on public roads payed for by the general tax fund.

    Amtrak, obviously, is staffed by government employees. But the greyhound driver had to go to the DMV (government), drives on government land and relies heavily on government regulation.

  • James Fujita

    I do believe that it is possible for a conservative to support transit. Some of Los Angeles’ best rail transit advocates are conservative.

    However, I also think that it is impossible to bring around a conservative to the pro-transit position from the argument proposed here.

    Look at the Greyhound example. Sure, those are public roads (and I’m devil’s advocating here), but those are roads used by car drivers, big-rig truck drivers (the wheels of industry!) as well as Greyhound. Yes, Greyhound drivers have to get licenses and permits, but so does “everybody.”
    Heck, some conservatives would privatize those roads and sell off the DMV. Privatize the licensing agency, they’re all public employee union members anyways. Outsource it to India or China! Or just eliminate the regulations (except for the ones regarding illegals). ***still devil’s advocating***

    Yes, Amtrak does run on private railways, but many of those private railroads would love to get Amtrak off their backs (just ask Union Pacific).

    It would be REALLY easy to marginalize Amtrak riders, and even marginalize rail and bus. In terms of sheer numbers, car drivers still outnumber transit users. Therefore, in terms of limited government, the system used by more people is the more popular one, and the one which deserves more funding (I’m still playing conservative devil’s advocate here. Sure transit is growing, but it’s still a toddler).

    You’re not going to convince anyone that public transit equals limited government.

    Forget the subsidies and splitting hairs. They have whole think tanks dedicated to tearing apart “wasteful government spending your tax dollars”

    A better argument is all of the new development that will go up near each train station. The time savings in commuting to work. The extra time at the office. Or at the golf course. Or faster highways because “those people” are on the train.

  • Bob L.

    How come those Republicans running for Governors are anti-HSR, Including Meg?

    How come NJ Governor stopped all constuction to improve rail transportation.

    Price of gas today is low, but remember that many airlines almost went belly up while some did when the price of gas went up. This is going to happen again. There is a finite amount of oil in the world with planes requiring oil to fly, but ground and water transit can use other types of energy.

    Until we stop being selfish, we will continue following our path in becoming the leading thrid world country and cannot aford any of our toys and games.

  • MJS

    “You’re not going to convince anyone that public transit equals limited government.”

    Yes, because nationalizing and subsidizing the failing automobile industry and starting massively expensive (1 trillion USD +) overseas wars to protect oil interests is definitely a small-government position, but investing a few billion in light rail or high-speed trains to achieve energy and transport independence is SOCIALISM.

    I think all but the most die-hard Tea Party type would see the silliness in that kind of belief (j’espere).

    A federally owned-and-operated national high-speed train system and light rail projects by local governments would be far less expensive and corrupt than the current system we have now where multinational corporations get all the benefits from government largess.

  • Erik G.

    And when Greyhound (or any vehicle fleet operator) has a downturn in business, they just park their vehicles, and potentially unregister them.

    (One of the major providers of Over-the-Road Bus services in Southern California, Coach America, registers almost all of their fleet in Wyoming despite having contracts to operate for the public entities LAX FlyAway, Ventura County’s VISTA public transit and Amtrak California Thruway…but I digress!)

    Thus the bus operator only pays into the maintainence of system what it is required to by the IMHO quasi-Marxist road pricing systems currently in place.

    The railroad, be it Amtrak or other public entity when it owns the track (Metrolink and Coaster own much of the track now in Southern California) or BNSF and UP (who own all the rest, excluding Alameda Corridor some in-port branch lines) has to maintain their lines regardless of how many trains are operating on them. And in the case of BNSF/UP, must pay property tax on their Rights-of-Way.

    From my observations, BNSF does not have the aversion to passenger rail that plagues Uncle Pete.

    Selling off the limited access highways (a.k.a. “Free”ways in California) to private toll-collecting, property tax paying entities would more clearly define who is operating the more efficient form of moving people and goods.

  • Erik G.

    Mica came out to Pomona for the unveiling of the EcoLiner at the Foothill Transit Bus Barn. He is very supportive of that program, despite his opposition to the Recovery Act which paid for the EcoLiner.

    Prior to the unveiling, he told those in attendance, he and local closeted-Republican Rep. David Drier had flown around in a helicopter to see the Alameda Corridor East Project and, as if on queue, a long freight train of Double-stack containers roared by the Bus Yard’s northern boundary during his remarks. Mica seemed surprised by this, but that’s because he’s not from a state where most all of the cheap crap from China gets off-loaded from the ships and put on trains or trucks to head off to all points of the country.

  • don

    Being nothing has happened with national ballast water legislation that rep Oberstar sponsered, since its pasage in the house 395-7 in 2008, it would be correct to assume it was all “bullshit” as rep Oberstar stated. Since none of the politicians in the country will publicly speak to this issue in front of national or state media, perhaps it may be time for “change” A Dec2009 report for congress suggest the cost of foreign imports would rise if national ballast water legislation were enacted. Job creation? or economic globalization?

  • Kaja

    At the risk of commenting briefly,

    > You didn’t answer my third question: “Which one shrinks government’s role the most?”

    A Goldwater conservative, i.e. the last brand of consistent conservatives, would argue that the trains should be privatized, on a contract system something like the IND/BMT & IRT.

    You can’t come to the right answer from wrong premises, and government-owned property (if you’re me, or a Goldwaterite), is a wrong premise. (Capitalism precludes a tragedy of commons, because in strict capitalism, all property is privately owned.)

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  • roburt
  • I’m with James on this. The answer to ‘which one shrinks government’s role the most?’ is still not clear enough here. 

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