Mica and Rail Supporters Meet Halfway

Members of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association on Capitol Hill with Rep. John Mica (center) on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of USHSR.

At a meeting with members of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association Tuesday, House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica softened his stance somewhat on his plan to privatize the Northeast Corridor.

He acknowledged that the proposal is “controversial” and said that was why he framed it in a separate bill, apart from the rest of the reauthorization. He said he’s “heard the concerns” about the plan. A member of his staff said that the original plan was being portrayed as transferring Amtrak’s assets away from it, while leaving Amtrak holding the bag on the debt. “Which, when you put it that way, does sound sort of unfair,” the staffer said, indicating that issues like those are being worked out.

Andy Kunz, president and CEO of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association, said he was glad to see Mica striking a more cooperative tone. “His initial bill and his initial hearing was a little bit ‘This is it; take it or leave it’,” Kunz said. “Now he’s recognizing there needs to be a bit more cooperative action.”

The committee isn’t easing up on everything, though. The staffer also stated that the committee was giving inter-city and passenger rail “a temporary rest” while it focuses exclusively on high-speed rail. “It does not serve the two programs well to be ‘smooshed,’ or put together and consolidated the way they have been and then have most of the projects that receive funding not be high-speed rail in any way, shape, or form.”

In response to the Congressional Research Service’s conclusion that the rail privatization scheme could run into constitutional problems, Mica’s staffer was dismissive, saying CRS merely warned that some courts could find it to be a violation, and they should be careful. (Sounds like a finding of unconstitutionality to me.)

As he often does, Mica spoke of his high-speed rail plans as a way to rescue high-speed rail from the Obama administration’s mismanagement and bungling. He often jokes about the “gift that keeps on giving”: the original $8 billion allocated for high-speed rail, some of which has been returned by gun-shy states and re-allocated.

Mica asserted that the involvement of the private sector is “non-negotiable” – which Amtrak itself would agree with, as it’s already seeking private sector partners. Mica gave Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman credit for being on board. “Boardman sees that you cannot [upgrade the NEC to high speeds] – at least in his lifetime – under the current proposal,” Mica said. He also said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is “willing to negotiate.” But he cast blame on Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), who he said are willing to give “none of the pie” to private investors.

Everyone is still trying to figure out exactly what the “pie” consists of, in any case, and Mica let the USHSR know that he had sent a letter to Joseph Boardman asking for an itemized inventory of all the assets on the NEC and their fair market value. Mica’s staffer says that “knowing what’s there and how leveraged it is and what are the encumbrances” would be a “building block of private sector financing participation.”

Kunz of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association agreed that Amtrak “needs to show that they’re willing to bend a little bit,” if for no other reason than because “Amtrak needs funding from the federal government every year.”

In an interview with Streetsblog immediately after the Capitol Hill meetings, Kunz said, “Amtrak is just assuming they’re going to control everything and run everything, and that may not be in the interests of the whole country… it’s the country’s rail system. They need to do what’s best for the country, which may not always be what’s best for Amtrak.”

Mica is hoping that transit-oriented development will be a key source of private sector involvement, and, perhaps, revenue. He pointed to successes with TOD in Phoenix and said, “Can you imagine, in the Northeast Corridor, what you could do?”

Mica also said he’s been meeting with Democrats on the larger reauthorization package, and that so far they’ve gotten about 55 or 60 percent of the way through the bill. It’s been lamented that there haven’t been “Big Four” meetings in the House like there have been in the Senate, bringing together top members of both parties from the committee, but those meetings have now started in the various subcommittees. Mica started to say that all that consultation was the explanation for the delay in marking up the bill, but then he said, “We will continue in a slower motion fashion,” he said, “mainly because our leadership controls the floor time.”

He granted that the delay makes sense. “Given the intensity of the current drama on the budget deficit, they probably calculated right,” he said. “To get this to the floor before next Friday seems highly unlikely. But we have a commitment to do it as soon as we get back [from recess]. So you’ll see everything go from slow motion into fast motion as soon as we get back.”

The U.S. High-Speed Rail Association is trying to drum up interest in its new “Republicans 4 Rail” program. They’re trying to get members of Congress, governors, state and local officials, and even some rank-and-file members of the Republican party to sign on.

For now, the pickings are still somewhat slim. Mica counts, although many Democrats see his Northeast Corridor proposal as the “death knell” of passenger rail in the U.S. So does Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), one of few Republican senators representing urban or industrial states. In trying to brainstorm other Senate Republicans who might be interested in joining R4R, Kirk’s staffer and the USHSR came up with a short list indeed: maybe Rob Portman from Ohio; maybe Scott Brown of Massachusetts if he weren’t running for reelection.

The rail lobbyists met with Kirk’s office after the meeting with Mica, but Kirk himself was not able to show up. His staffer talked about the Lincoln Legacy Infrastructure Development Act, also designed to draw private investment to public infrastructure projects.

He also alluded to the House/Senate split around the duration of a reauthorization. He said the constituent calls he gets on the subject are about split, 50-50, on the issue of whether to lock in low spending levels for six years, a la the House bill, or go with a two-year bill at higher spending levels, but offering less ability to plan long-term projects.