“Grab a Hold of Your Shorts”: Mica and LaHood Talk Transportation Bill

This morning, House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica told transit professionals gathered at the American Public Transportation Association’s legislative conference that he’s still hoping to pass a bill out of the House by May in order to get it signed before September 30, when the current extension of SAFETEA-LU expires. “It’ll be very difficult after that,” he said. “Because of the presidential ‘happy season,’ major legislation sometimes gets left behind.”

Photo credit: Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel

As he’s said before, Mica doesn’t have a bill in his “back pocket.” It’s hard to say if he was praising or criticizing his predecessor, Rep. Jim Oberstar, when he told the APTA audience, “He had waited 32 years to become chair. He knew exactly what he wanted in the bill, and he hand-wrote it out and projected it up on a screen and everyone was to march, and I did, until we started to get picked off by the administration and other folks who had other ideas, and it never happened.”

Mica also announced a series of stakeholder meetings to be held in the last week of March to supplement the field hearings the committee has been holding around the country. The meetings will help lawmakers craft a transportation reauthorization bill. Mica told the APTA members that they will be among those invited. It will include “all the Washington folks that haven’t been heard.”

Then he’ll “buy beer and pizza” (and fruit smoothies, as requested by Sen. Barbara Boxer) and lawmakers will sit down and hash it all out, he told reporters after his speech.

As for the broader budget fight, Mica alluded to the current deal to pass another extension for three more weeks – “Then, my advice and counsel would be, grab a hold of your shorts and hang on,” he said. “It might be a wild ride.”

He said it’s “above his pay grade” to guess whether more extensions will follow. “It’s not the way to fund the government, but a lot of people were sent here with a mission to cut spending.”

Mica got in his usual jabs at Amtrak, which he likes to call a “Soviet-style” train operator, incapable of developing real high-speed rail. It’s a sad time for high-speed rail proponents, like him, who were excited about the president’s vision, he said, “It’s like trying to celebrate and you’ve got a box of cigars and the first three cigars explode in your face.”

In his opinion, Florida was a bad choice for a high-speed corridor, but he and other advocates should “dust ourselves off and move forward.” He said all future inter-modal centers will be built in downtowns (and not leave passengers “at a gas station outside of town”) with consideration given to transit connections, which Tampa doesn’t have.

Mica drew on his own personal history as a “transit-dependent” to explain his support for a strong public transportation system – and one with reliable service at all hours, not just rush hour.

“I became a fan [of public transportation] when I was young, and I didn’t always have the money for a car,” he said. “I took public transportation. I used to take the last bus out, when I worked all night at the Miami Herald in the mail room, and I took the first bus out in the morning, at 6:30. And over the weekend, I had two other jobs. So I personally know many people depend on the service you provide.”

In response to a question about the new inter-city rail caucus, just founded by Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Mica said he’s “not a big caucus-joiner” and encouraged people to put their energy into the committee process instead. He told them this is their chance to influence legislation – “you’ll never have a more open process than what I’m providing” – and told them that if the final bill is missing something, “it’s your fault” for not providing input.

LaHood also addressed the gathering, speaking only briefly before taking questions about transit safety, including the Public Transportation Safety Act, which he said was a priority for him this year. He said he was stunned, after Washington, D.C.’s metro crash, that DOT has no jurisdiction over transit safety. The Banking Committee passed the bill last year, and they’re still tweaking it. “If you look at the bill, which we hope will be reintroduced, and if there are some things you don’t like about it, let us know.”

He paid homage to the inter-agency Partnership for Sustainable Communities, and listed the benefits it provides, like collaboration on a TIGER grant to build affordable housing and sidewalks near transit in Kansas City, Missouri.

Not surprisingly, LaHood was asked (not by me, this time!) how the administration plans to pay for its transportation proposal, and not surprisingly, he said he looked forward to working with Congress on that, but a gas tax hike is off the table.

One attendee said that people in London are paying $12 a gallon for gas and perhaps our gas tax could go up a bit more, as it did under President Ronald Reagan, for the dual purpose of deficit reduction and transportation. But LaHood balked at the questioner’s cajoling for a candid answer “just among us friends in this room.”

“I wish that were the case,” LaHood joked back. “Do you know how many media people are sitting in the back, just waiting for me to say something? Do you want me to keep my job? (“Yes, sir, I do, very much!”) Then don’t be asking your question.”