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Florida Republican John Mica could be a key ally on high-speed rail

By Sean Barry on 02/02/2011 – 12:28 pm PSTLeave a Comment

When President Obama last week set the ambitious target of giving 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years, many of the usual suspects were ready with the cold water. But away from the ideological fray, the people who need to be won over - Republicans on Capitol Hill - were sending largely positive signals.

Today, the Orlando Sentinel profiled Congressman John Mica, the powerful Republican chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and perhaps the person most crucial to President Obama’s success at infrastructure investment.

Mica is an 18-year veteran of the House and longtime advocate for rail, particularly in his home state of Florida. He told PBS’ Blueprint America in 2009:

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.

As the Sentinel noted, one of Mica’s first acts as chairman was convening a field hearing in New York City on how to bring high-speed rail to the Northeast corridor:

Mica and his industry allies hope to use a proposed train between Orlando and Tampa to show that private companies are willing to invest their own money in high-speed rail. If it works, Mica hopes the playbook could be repeated across the country, including the Northeast.

With President Obama calling for transportation investments to be fully paid for - and many House Republicans favoring deep cuts - Mica’s focus on leveraging private investment becomes crucial. That’s the approach he is taking for the 61-mile, $1.2 billion SunRail system set to run from DeLand to Poinciana, with a stop in downtown Orlando. Florida’s newly elected Republican governor remains a rail skeptic, but Mica may be able to plow forward without state funds. From the Sentinel:

Rather than press Tallahassee, however, Mica wants to put the burden on the private sector — eight multinational consortia, led by companies such as Siemens, General Electric, Bombardier and Bechtel — that have expressed interest in bidding on the project.

“I don’t think any more state, federal or local money should go into it,” Mica said. “Let’s get the private sector to chip in.”

Mica is well positioned to work with both his colleagues and the Obama administration. The Congressman has reportedly been meeting with his Senate counterpart - California Democrat and Environment and Public Works Committee chair Barbara Boxer - and has a strong relationship with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, himself a former House Republican.

Whether Congress this year is able to pass a reauthorization of the surface transportation bill - and how much funding is available for rail and other travel options - will depend a lot on what happens in Mica’s committee and how he chooses to lead.

Photo: Washington Post

Tags: ambitious target, , , congressman john mica, ,

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