Thursday, February 3, 2011

Spinning John Mica on High-Speed Rail

Let's get right to it.  This article comes from a pro-HSR blog. Actually, it's a Democratic/campaign/PAC/ lobbying group.  So, it has a lot of spin.  That is, it shows Republican John Mica to be the best friend high-speed rail ever had.

OK, "Transportation for America," let's not get carried away.  We already 'have Mica on tape' several times being very skeptical of most of the so-called HSR projects that were awarded ARRA stimulus dollars and are now grovelling for further funds. Acknowledging the highest population density and most heavily travelled corridor, Mica  has said numerous times that the only high-speed rail that is justifiable for federal support is the Northeast Corridor (NEC). 

He's much less enthusiastic about all the other projects.  Furthermore, he disagrees with the Obama/LaHood aproach of handing out dribs and drabs of funding as if they were earmarks to any applicant who wants to make their passenger trains go faster.  That's usually called 'pork.' 

You understand that when you talk with Democratic Senators and Congressmen or their staff, they will (reluctantly) acknowledge that the CHSRA is a big mess.  But they will persist -- against all reason -- to tell that they support the HSR "in principle."  

What they actually mean is they don't give a damn one way of the other about HSR; what they do care about is getting federal dollars into their state.  And, they certainly don't want to cross the President and his HSR love affair. That stance pleases the Unions and the corporate interests that stand to benefit from HSR development. It's also a 'vehicle' for getting those politicians re-elected. Let's just consider high-speed rail not so much an appropriate transit opportunity as a pipeline for federal funding to the states. 

The crucial issue for Mica and the other Republicans who will be in the decision-making loop is the matter of private investments, such as Public Private Partnerships. When that subject comes up, the companies named are either foreign HSR manufacturers like Siemens and Bombardier, or American companies (GE, Bechtel) with a large stake in this development for the sake of profits.   It's like Parsons Brinckerhoff lending $43 billion to the CHSRA so that they can pay PB's contract obligations.  

Forgive my naivete, but I fail to understand why Bechtel or GE would fund something, especially in the huge amounts necessary, in order to get a contract to build it.  It would, of course, be a loan, not a gift.  So, where are their profits?  We already know that these rail systems will be subsidy-dependent money losers, the tab picked up by the government as they are elsewhere in the world. But that's only for operational expenses, not investment interest. That's how Amtrak works.

Where's the return on investment?  Will that burden also fall on the states that will be obliged to guarantee those private investments?  In which case, it's really a very lousy deal for the rest of us who have to cover all those perpetual costs with our taxes.  Let's just say that most of us taxpayers will not be riding this high-speed train in California.  Therefore, who gets to make the money on this money loser?  The investors who's return is covered -- unwittingly -- by the voters, and those who can afford the high-priced ticket to ride, since that's subsidized.

The Republicans would do well to terminate this boondoggle.

Florida Republican John Mica could be a key ally on high-speed rail
February 2, 2011
By Sean Barry

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.