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.