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The Mica Bill: Good for 30/10, Bad for Everyone Else. How Will Boxer Respond?

Representative John Mica is at the podium flanked by Villaraigosa and Boxer at last February's "field hearing" on reauthorization held at the V.A. Hospital in West L.A. Photo:Darrell Clarke

Much has been made of the proposal to reauthorize the Federal Transportation Trust Fund that was submitted by Republican Congressman John Mica last week.  The Mica Bill has been criticized by Democrats who feel left out of the proposal, advocates for green transportation options who bristle at the proposed elimination of the bicycle and pedestrian programs and the construction industry shocked by dramatic cuts to an industry that is already seeing higher-than-average unemployment in an era where the unemployment rate is beyond average.

To paint an even uglier picture, SF Streetsblog broke down the bad news for transit agencies and cities throughout California while Capitol Hill Streetsblog just called it a “disaster for transit.”  But there is a surprise winner in the legislation: Los Angeles’ 30/10 plan, aka America Fast Forward.  This plan would allow Los Angeles to build its Measure R transit projects, currently slated to take three decades, to complete their planning, environmental studies and construction in the next decade.  The plan was rebranded because it provides benefits for all areas of the country willing to shoulder a major chunk of the burden of building their own transit.

Back when Mica and California Senator Barbara Boxer held a field hearing on reauthorization back in February, the Congressman was pressed by Mayor Villaraigosa to dramatically expand the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan program up to $350 million a year which would be a dramatic increase from the $110 million a year funding level it is currently at.  While the Mica Bill cuts spending by nearly 33% from the federal government, this loan program would explode to $1 billion a year, nearly triple what Villaraigosa proposed just over four months ago.  It’s no wonder that while Democrats around the country have attacked the bill so much that Mica is publicly complaining about his treatment, Villaraigosa releases a statement praising Mica:

I know that Chairman Mica, who graciously co-hosted a transportation hearing in the City of Los Angeles earlier this year with Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), understands the scale and scope of the transportation and economic challenges facing all Americans.

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Experts Agree: Six-Year Transportation Bill Won’t Pass This Year

At times in this whole reauthorization process, it’s been hard to see the way forward. House Republicans refuse to deficit-spend their way out of the funding conundrum, and Democrats haven’t gotten behind a coherent plan to come up with more revenues, though they’re still arguing for a bigger bill. Still, I’ve been reporting on the bill as if it’s bound to happen, one way or another. Secretary Ray LaHood has been unflinching in his optimism that a bill will pass this year. But the more I talk to experts, I realize: this thing probably isn’t going to happen.

Fantasies of a six-year bill seem likely to die at the feet of Senator Max Baucus.

I’m not going to quote any of them by name, because I don’t want to risk getting them in trouble with the Congressional leaders that are pushing for a six-year bill. But the half-dozen or so people I talked to for this story were unanimous in their skepticism that this year will see anything but another short-term extension, despite the fact that everyone agrees that’s the worst option.

One advocacy leader said he’s generally an optimist, and until a few months ago, he believed there was a 50-50 chance of getting a bill passed this year. (That’s right – even at his most optimistic, those were the best odds he could give it.) In the last month or so, he’s gotten far less cheery on the subject. The administration has refused to provide leadership on the issue, he said. Rahm Emanuel was a strong force pushing for reform within the White House and with him gone (pushing for reform now in Chicago, bless his heart), the fire seems to be gone as well. Besides, my source said, the White House is already in re-election mode.

Other advocates aren’t shy about putting the odds at zero. Many say they don’t see how a bill could pass this year, with deadlines getting pushed later and later into the summer. Some sources aren’t convinced the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee even has a bill written. Certainly the staff is working on one, but nobody’s seen it yet. Even some sources inside the administration are wondering what’s up. T&I leaders say they’re waiting to finish the FAA reauthorization before really getting started with the surface transportation bill, and that’s not for nothing – budget cuts in Congress have left the committee short-staffed and they simply don’t have the person-power to shepherd two major initiatives at the same time.

But the time crunch is far from the only problem. The small size of the bill the House is expected to pass could be the kiss of death. “The stakeholders that often drive the process are not going to be as enthusiastic about it if it’s a lower level,” said one expert. Besides, with a smaller bill (not to mention the program changes and consolidations being proposed), they’re going to need to change the funding formulas — a complex process that takes a long time.

The rift between the six-year bill camp and the two-year bill camp is about to get serious, some say. First of all, sixers have a way of changing their tune when it becomes clear they’d be locking in starvation funding levels for that long. And many people think Sen. Max Baucus wasn’t just talking off the cuff when he proposed a two-year alternative. If that’s his position, he has the power to enforce it, both as chair of the Finance Committee and chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee of EPW. House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica has made no secret of the fact that it’s six years or bust in his book. Some think Baucus will go along if Mica and Boxer insist on a six-year bill. But as one expert told me, “It’s rotten fruit – how much of it do you really want to take home?”

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Strange Bedfellows Unite for Infrastructure Investment, Financing Tools

From left: Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue, Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, Rep. John Mica, LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Sen. Barbara Boxer, AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka. Photo: Senate Photographic Studio

The “Tom and Rich Show” continued on Capitol Hill yesterday. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue and AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka joined up for yet another event to show that business and labor, which don’t agree on anything, agree on a major infusion of federal investment for infrastructure.

They weren’t the only strange bedfellows there. Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer and Republican Congressman John Mica were practically holding hands through the entire press conference. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (a Democrat) found common cause with Mesa Mayor Scott Smith (a Republican).

“We have Democrats, Republicans, House, Senate, labor, business, lambs, lions, cats, dogs lying down together,” said Mayor Smith. “But there’s no apocalypse on the horizon. There’s a new dawn.”

In the past, even as other leaders in Boxer’s party have called for an infrastructure bank, she has hesitated to join them, expressing support for a strengthened and expanded TIFIA loan program instead. She’s said that rather than create a new federal bureaucracy, she’d rather stick with an existing program with a proven track record. But now she’s saying those approaches can each work in conjunction. “They’re definitely complementary,” she said yesterday. “I’m supporting the infrastructure bank, a strengthened TIFIA, and the Wyden approach [to renew the Build America Bonds program]. They’re all complementary. It’s all about leverage, leverage, leverage.”

Tom Donohue’s persistent, at times strident calls for strong federal infrastructure investment have been at odds with the calls from the fiscal conservatives the Chamber helped elect. While many in the House are bracing for a smaller reauthorization bill than hoped for – possibly even smaller than the last one, passed in 2005 – and calling for increased public-private partnerships to pick up the slack, Donohue knows that’s not going to cut it. He’s calling for a big bill, funded with a significant increase in the gas tax, which everyone in the transportation industry supports and everyone in Washington shuns.

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“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.”

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.”

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The Federal Transportation Bill Is a Health Care Bill

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Rep. John Mica, and Sen. Barbara Boxer at the podium, at the recent field hearing in LA on transportation. Photo: Darrell Clarke

Dr. Richard J. Jackson is Professor and Chair of Environmental Health Science in the UCLA School of Public Health. We’re happy to host opinion pieces from academic and other community leaders. Contact damien@streetsblog.org if you’re interested.

On February 23, Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative John Mica held a congressional hearing here in Los Angeles to discuss the federal transportation bill. The dominant theme of the hearing was expanding and establishing federal financing programs to provide capital for major infrastructure projects such as Los Angeles’s 30/10 plan, an initiative to build 12 major transit projects in 10 years. The elected leaders and assembled experts lauded the proposed programs for their potential to rapidly stimulate job creation and economic growth. Very little was mentioned, however, about the need for transportation investments to also be guided by other objectives, such as reducing air pollution, investing in biking and walking networks, and improving safety – all critical elements for improving the economy and public health. Transportation has immense impacts on human health, both positive and negative. Current policies fail to consider and value these impacts, but they must.

Traditionally, federal transportation funds have been given to states according to formula and with little accountability for how they are used. In Los Angeles the results are staggering. The annual health impacts from air pollution in our region alone are conservatively estimated at $22 billion, or $1,250 per person per year. Also, while pedestrians or cyclists account for 12 percent of all trips, they suffer 25 percent of all traffic fatalities. And as we have become more dependent on cars as a way to get to our jobs, to the store, to our doctors’ offices, and to every place else, our physical activity has declined, and coronary heart disease has become the number one killer of LA County residents.

To the credit of many public health leaders, elected officials, local policymakers, and engaged citizens, cities throughout the region are investing in biking and walking infrastructure to address these issues, revitalize local economies, and increase the effectiveness of transit systems. Planners in numerous cities — including Pasadena, Long Beach, Culver City, Glendale, Santa Monica, and Los Angeles — are setting strategic long-term goals and formulating plans to expand biking and walking networks, make them safer, and integrate them into existing and future public transit networks.

California is moving forward with its SB 375 law to reduce emissions by focusing on the communities we build and the types of transportation we use. This landmark law has initiated a process where planners, regulators, and the public have come together to set long-term goals and plan to achieve them. One purpose of this law is to comprehensively evaluate how different projects — including public transit, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, car-pool lanes, and roads — contribute collectively to achieving these goals.

But federal transportation bills have not set these strategic goals. As a result, despite continuous increases in federal funding, public health has not been a major factor as transportation projects are selected. Los Angeles, for example, has seen its air quality improve significantly but not as a result of more public transportation or communities where people can bike and walk safely and efficiently, but rather because cars are cleaner. At the same time, sprawl has continued to increase to a point where, in Los Angeles alone, we spend 490 million hours annually stuck in traffic. The combined weight of the health impacts from air pollution, traffic accidents, and lack of physical activity along with the costs of wasted fuel and time is a collective drag on our health and economy. Read more…

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Mica on the Next Transportation Bill: Size Matters

We caught up with Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair John Mica today and asked him about the reauthorization of the federal transportation bill.

Photo courtesy of the office of T&I Committee Chair John Mica.

Streetsblog: First, I wanted to ask you what your thoughts are about the size of the six-year bill?

John Mica: Size matters.

(Long pause, Mica laughs.)

SB: Any guesses? Would it be limited to what’s in the Highway Trust Fund?

JM: We’ll have to see. What I hope to do is have four measures of value. One would be what’s in the trust fund and stabilizing that. The second would be any money that we can find that hasn’t been used in any previous authorizations or appropriations and move that. The third would be looking at programs where we could leverage funds, like public private partnerships, bonding – and the fourth area that I would like to count would be speeding up the process. We’ve heard in the hearings we’ve done so far that the time the process takes runs the cost up, and very often projects go on for years and sometimes decades.

So those are the measures that would get me to a total figure. And I would like the size bigger rather than smaller. We’ll see what we can do.

SB: You’ve been a real supporter of mass transit and there aren’t many Republicans who are…

JM: Well, where the projects make sense. You have to look at the value, the cost-effectiveness, the routing, and the public support.

SB: Is there a way that you can talk – or that you can recommend that advocates can talk – to Republicans in a way that makes sense to them instead of a way that has been alienating?

JM: Republicans are most interested in cost-effectiveness. What they’ve seen is some wasteful projects. They’ve seen the administration take an $8 billion appropriation for high-speed rail and turn it into a Christmas tree, and many people are now returning the ornaments. I think Republicans will support sound infrastructure projects; they just have to be evaluated on a cost-effective basis.

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Gov. Rick Scott Is Reconsidering Florida HSR Position

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has asked the Department of Transportation for additional time to reconsider his decision to return $2.4 billion in federal funding for high-speed rail in the state.

Will Rick Scott reconsider his decision to forego high-speed rail in Florida? Photo: Orlando Sentinel

Scott was given an extension last week by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, while the two parties worked on ways to minimize the risk involved for the state of Florida. The governor had been given one week to reconsider his decision, one that was criticized by fellow Florida Republican John Mica, chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

According to reports from a local newspaper, state transportation officials have floated the idea of making Amtrak or a private company responsible for any potential cost over-runs, one of the concerns cited by Gov. Scott in his refusal last week.

LaHood made the following statement this afternoon on the situation:

“This morning I met with Governor Rick Scott to discuss the high speed rail project that will create jobs and economic development for the entire state of Florida. He asked me for additional information about the state’s role in this project, the responsibilities of the Florida Department of Transportation, as well as how the state would be protected from liability. I have decided to give Governor Scott additional time to review the agreement crafted by local officials from Orlando, Tampa, Lakeland and Miami, and to consult with his staff at the state Department of Transportation. He has committed to making a final decision by the end of next week. I feel we owe it to the people of Florida, who have been working to bring high speed rail to their state for the last 20 years, to go the extra mile.”

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Key House Republicans Aren’t Buying Administration HSR Proposal

Vice President Joe Biden’s announcement of a $53 billion infusion for high-speed rail has fallen like a lead balloon on the ears of some key GOP leaders. House Transportation Committee Chair John L. Mica (R-FL) and Railroads Subcommittee Chair Bill Shuster (R-PA) expressed “extreme reservations” about the plan.

Transportation Chair John Mica has "extreme reservations" about the administration's new plan for HSR. Image: Orlando Sentinel

“This is like giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio,” Mica said in a statement.

“With the first $10.5 billion in Administration rail grants, we found that 1) the Federal Railroad Administration is neither a capable grant agency, nor should it be involved in the selection of projects, 2) what the Administration touted as high-speed rail ended up as embarrassing snail-speed trains to nowhere, and 3) Amtrak hijacked 76 of the 78 projects, most of them costly and some already rejected by state agencies,” Mica added. “Amtrak’s Soviet-style train system is not the way to provide modern and efficient passenger rail service.”

They say the committee plans to investigate how previous funding decisions were made, charging that rail routes were selected “behind closed doors” as a “political grab bag for the President,” despite “the Administration’s pledges of transparency.”

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result and that is exactly what Vice President Biden offered today,” Shuster said. “Rail projects that are not economically sound will not ‘win the future.’ It just prolongs the inevitable by subsidizing a failed Amtrak monopoly that has never made a profit or even broken even. Government won’t develop American high-speed rail. Private investment and a competitive market will.”

Like we said – don’t count those 53 billion chickens before they’re passed by Congress.

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House Transpo Committee Promises Bipartisanship, to Tackle Aviation First

Ranking Member Nick Rahall presents Chairman John Mica with a new gavel to run the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Ranking Member Nick Rahall presents Chairman John Mica with a new gavel to run the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Meet the new House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The committee’s meeting this morning, the first of the 112th Congress, included twenty new Republican faces, 19 of whom are freshman representatives. The mostly administrative agenda didn’t offer many chances for the committee members to talk policy, but even some of the freshmen’s short introductions proved potentially revealing.

Chair John Mica and Ranking Member Nick Rahall each forcefully restated his commitment to keeping the committee running on bipartisan terms. “This has been one of the most bipartisan committees and it will continue to be,” said Mica. In a rhetorical reach across the aisle, Mica also used the president’s State of the Union call to invest in transportation as a springboard for his own remarks.

“There’s no Republican bridges, there’s no Democratic bridges, there’s only American bridges,” said Rahall. He urged committee members to “stand together, even against party leadership if necessary,” to keep partisanship out of their work. He even serenaded Mica with a one-day-early rendition of Happy Birthday.

More importantly, both Mica and Rahall agreed on a proposed schedule for the committee: as previously reported, aviation reauthorization will come before the surface transportation bill.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the surface transportation bill is being abandoned. “We’re going to get the darn thing done,” promised Mica. He also announced that the committee will take a listening tour across the country in mid-February to gather ideas from across the country. “I’m going to be as flexible as a Barbie doll,” said Mica.

The Republican freshman also had a few interesting things to say. Here are a few that stood out.

  • Tom Reed, from Western New York, suggested that the House’s new anti-spending fervor should perhaps spare transportation. “It’s through our infrastructure that we can unleash the private sector,” he said. “That’s proper government spending.”
  • Two representatives, Pennsylvania’s Lou Barletta and New York’s Richard Hanna, cited their private sector infrastructure building experience. Barletta founded the Interstate Road Marking Corporation, which became the largest pavement marker in Pennsylvania, and Hanna’s construction company handled a variety of public and private projects.
  • Pat Meehan, who represents the Philadelphia suburbs, said that his district has “complex needs” ranging “from rail to ports to highways.” In contrast, Florida’s Steve Southerland only noted that I-10 and I-75 run through his district.
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Mica’s Goal: More Cars Off of the Highway

In a recent interview with the Journal of Commerce, Transportation Chair John Mica (R-FL) indicated that he shares many transportation goals with the Obama administration.

Mica speaks at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Auto Train terminal in Sanford. Photo courtesy of ##http://mica.house.gov/Photos/#id=136716&num=12##John Mica's office##.

Mica speaks at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Auto Train terminal in Sanford. Photo courtesy of John Mica's office.

We mentioned the Journal’s report the other day that Mica has tried to reassure transportation supporters that new House rules won’t starve the highway trust fund.

Now the Journal is reporting that Mica is eager to shift more freight transportation to rail in order to “ease pressure on federal road and bridge spending out of the Highway Trust Fund, by reducing the pace of wear and tear.”

“My goal would be to get more trucks off of the highway, and more cars off of the highway,” Mica said.

Mica also refered to the vastly undersubscribed Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing loan program, which hasn’t shared the popularity of other federal funding programs like TIGER and TIFIA. He told the Journal would not try to use RRIF money for road projects, “but I can free that up for rail infrastructure … (and) enhancement of rail takes pressure off of my highways, if it’s properly applied, too.”

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