Tom McNamara, Blueprint America
On Capitol Hill, the new year will bring a new Congress and a change in leadership in the House after Republicans won big last month in the midterm elections. However, the new House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair, Rep. John Mica (R., Fla.), is something of an enigma when compared to his Republican counterparts as they prepare to take control. What no one can even guess about is the tone that Rep. Mica will set on transportation policy.
Here’s why: When current Transportation Chair Rep. Jim Oberstar (D., Minn.) steps down (it is worth noting that the 36-year member of Congress also lost his reelection bid), he gives way to not just any Republican but one of his closest political allies in Mica. Last year, the Florida Republican even went before Congress defending the Minnesota Democrat’s stalled transportation bill, which would have doubled government spending to over $500 billion and lessened the importance of highways in favor of mass-transit. To say the least, Mica showed another side of Republican thinking on transportation.
Below is an interview Blueprint America had with Mica back in 2009 when he was the minority leader of the Transportation Committee. What’s interesting is the fact that ideologically — at least on transportation issues — the incoming Chair aligned more often with liberals than conservatives. “If you’re on the Transportation Committee long enough,” said Rep. Mica, “even if you’re a fiscal conservative… you quickly see the benefits of transportation investment.”
That was then, however, when Mica was in the minority. See if you can read between the lines — will the new Chair continue to champion Oberstar’s stalled bill or will the Republican align with his party and cut spending now that he is calling the shots?
FROM JUNE 2009:
Last week, the Obama administration offered a temporary finance plan that, if implemented, could put off legislation to overhaul federal highway and transportation programs. It would also delay a possible vote to raise the national gas tax past the 2010 congressional midterm elections. The proposal came just a day before Rep. Jim Oberstar (D., Minn), Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, released an outline of the legislation – THE SURFACE TRANSPORTATION AUTHORIZATION ACT OF 2009 – aimed at reforming transportation nationally.
Rep. Oberstar had been counting on a September 30 deadline — when the current law authorizing federal highway and transit programs expires — to bring lawmakers together to not only renew federal transportation funding but to also rethink how it is funded.
The proposed transportation bill calls for $450 billion in federal funding, which is a 57 percent increase over the $286.5 billion bill approved in 2005.
The following is an interview with Rep. John Mica (R., Fla.), ranking minority member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, about the recent developments of the transportation bill:
BLUEPRINT AMERICA: The current highway authorization expires at the end of September. So what exactly is expiring?
REP. JOHN MICA: Every six years Congress adopts a federal authorization for highways, which outlines transportation policy, projects, and funding distributions for the whole country.
BLUEPRINT AMERICA: Right now, however, the Obama Administration wants to delay authorization.
REP. MICA: We’re on the verge of a transportation meltdown. The Administration has proposed an 18-month extension of both the highway authorization bill and the highway trust fund. That will require, depending on how long it is extended, between $8 and $15 billion.
BLUEPRINT AMERICA: But, typically, the transportation bill is not authorized every six years – it’s generally extended.
REP. MICA: Right. I think the last time we tried to authorize it we had 13 extensions.
BLUEPRINT AMERICA: Are you opposed to this 18-month extension by the Obama Administration?
REP. MICA: Well, I think that it would be better to go ahead with the transportation bill Rep. (Jim) Oberstar has introduced. We have been working on the bill for some time.
Still, I think we take that bill as the starter. The problem you’ve got with an 18-month extension is that it puts many of the major infrastructure projects on hold. The 18-month extension is a job killer. It gives you a temporary relief with the highway trust fund, but because you don’t have projects approved and policy and funding mechanisms in place for the future, it ends up killing jobs and delaying decisions on projects across the country. For example, there are 6, 800 project requests in the House bill alone – all of these would go on hold.
BLUEPRINT AMERICA: How will the extension be funded – this $8 to $15 billion?
REP. MICA: They would take it out of general revenue, which would basically be deficit spending – and fund it. They have talked about some offsets, but I haven’t seen any specifics. Last year, however, we did allocate $8 billion to keep the highway trust fund solvent. That said, it was with no offsets.
When we’ve spent $3 trillion so far this year with no offsets – $8 to $15 billion seems like a very small amount.
BLUEPRINT AMERICA: In the meantime, what is to be done about the highway trust fund?
REP. MICA: The highway trust fund will continue to lose money – for several reasons – as federal funding is based on an 18.4 cents a gallon national gas tax that hasn’t been increased in years. One, because of the economy, there’s not as much motor vehicle traffic. And two, every day the fleet is becoming more efficient, so people are driving further and paying less.
BLUEPRINT AMERICA: Why, then, is the Obama Administration wanting to delay authorization?
REP. MICA: A political reason – because they don’t want to promote another tax increase, which sure puts them in a bind as most of the Democrats in Congress favor a tax increase. Also, I think that they’ve got themselves overextended with taking on many controversial measures.
BLUEPRINT AMERICA: What do you favor in terms of funding transportation?
REP. MICA: There are two things we need to do. We need to leverage the funds we have coming in through a host of creative financing mechanisms. One, would be a dramatic increase in public-private partnerships. Two, would be leveraging some of the funds that we have coming in using bonds, full faith, and credit of the United States. And, guarantee programs toward financing infrastructure projects. Three, the national infrastructure bank and other financing or assistance programs.
That’s the first part.
The second part is speeding up the process. Most projects that the federal government is involved with take an inordinate amount of time for approvals, and they cost much more because there are so many delays and hoops that people have to go through.
I offer what I call the Mica 437-day process plan, which is the number of days it took to replace the bridge that collapsed over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. Rather than the seven or eight years it takes complete any other bridge, which would be the normal time frame.
BLUEPRINT AMERICA: And why did it just take 437-days to complete?
MICA: It was done on an expedited approval basis, which I think you could do with most projects that don’t change the basic footprint of the infrastructure that you’re rebuilding.
BLUEPRINT AMERICA: Is an expedited approval process included in the transportation bill? That said, are you supportive of the highway authorization?
REP. MICA: I’m supportive with reservations. First, I’m trying to move the process forward, but there are things, if I were writing it, that I would write quite differently. If the process continues to be open and participatory, then I can be supportive. It does need some clean-up, and it needs some revision. I’d like to see much more of the ideas that I have advocated on, such as speeding up the approval process and increasing the revenues that are available without raising taxes. Those are my two big ones.
BLUEPRINT AMERICA: What is the likelihood of the transportation bill passing?
REP. MICA: It’s 50-50. It’s hard to say if we can get support. I think that with rolling the bill out this week, we will have an option of our bill versus the 18-month extension. Then you just have to work it, and see if you can bring a coalition of people who are interested in building and solving the problem of infrastructure now, rather than putting it off until later.
BLUEPRINT AMERICA: And, what would you say of the support right now for the transportation bill?
REP. MICA: Well, I think it could pass in the House.
BLUEPRINT AMERICA: What about the Senate?
REP. MICA: A little bit more dicey.
BLUEPRINT AMERICA: You were quoted as saying, referring to the Obama Administration wanting to delay authorization, “That’s a real slap in the face to a lot of hard work … I would have been mortified if this had been done to me under Bush.”
REP. MICA: I’m not Rep. Oberstar, but for his administration, after working as hard as he has to move the bill forward, to have the rug pulled out from under him, with this just out of the blue proposal, is a hard pill to swallow.
BLUEPRINT AMERICA: In terms of your role as a Representative from Florida, and getting funding for your state and your district, what needs to happen to that process?
REP. MICA: Well, I’m more interested in the country at large in terms of infrastructure. If we can provide adequate funds for improvements across the country, then it benefits every district – not just my own. Simply, I’m not taking a parochial viewpoint for my own district or for my own state.
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.