More Notes on 2010 Election & Transportation: High-Speed Rail’s Cloudy Future, Mica’s Agenda

Last week I blogged about how the outcome of last Tuesday’s election is likely to impact plans for high-speed rail in some parts of the country and about the future of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in light of Rep. James Oberstar’s pending departure as chairman. Now a week later, we already know a bit more about how both issues could play out.

High-Speed Rail Projects in Jeopardy

Two newly-elected Republican governors in the Midwest appear to be moving quickly to keep campaign promises to kill high-speed rail projects in their states.

In Wisconsin, where the state’s incoming governor Scott Walker during the campaign called a proposed $810 million Milwaukee-to-Madison passenger rail project a “boondoggle,” promised to cancel it and try to redirect the funds to roads and bridges, the outgoing governor Jim Doyle ordered contractors to stop work on the project following Tuesday’s election.

State Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi said in a statement: “At the Governor’s request, I have asked contractors and consultants working on the high-speed rail project to temporarily interrupt their work for a few days. In light of the election results, our agency will be taking a few days to assess the real world consequences, including the immediate impacts to people and their livelihoods, if this project were to be stopped.”

Just days before the election, the Doyle administration sought to make cancellation of the project more difficult by signing an agreement with federal authorities to commit the state to spending all of the $810 million in federal stimulus money on the project.

One other complicating factor for Walker’s plan to cancel the project is that the U.S. unit of the Spanish train manufacturer Patentes Talgo has set up shop in Milwaukee to build trains for both an existing Milwaukee-to-Chicago rail line and the proposed Milwaukee-to-Madison line. The company recently hired 40 workers and expects to eventually employ 125, according to the Milwaukee Daily Reporter. Those jobs could be in jeopardy if the rail line is cancelled, company officials said.

“We were hoping to stay in Wisconsin and we were expecting our business to grow,” Talgo spokeswoman Nora Friend told the newspaper. “But once the order for the… trains (is) done, we would have to shut down the facility. I don’t think that’s what the new governor wants.”

The governor-elect was reportedly reaching out to the company’s leaders last week to encourage them to stay in Wisconsin. Talgo officials said Walker told them the decision on the rail project was “not final.” But a spokeswoman for Walker said the governor-elect’s outreach to the company did not mean he was no longer opposed to the project.

“(Walker) needs time to have discussions (this) week with the Doyle administration on their intentions when it comes to the project, and will continue to examine all legal options to stop the train,” Walker spokeswoman Jill Bader told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

But the train company might not be the only business the state risks losing if the rail line is cancelled, the (Madison) Capital Times newspaper editorialized late last week.

“Wisconsin businesses—and businesses around the country—have been planning, in many cases for years, on the development of high-speed rail. What Walker is saying and doing—and what state officials may be doing in conjunction with him—is damaging to Wisconsin’s long-term economic prospects.  It is a case of putting politics ahead of planning and common sense. And it will have severe consequences for job creation and growth in this state,” the editorial read.

Yesterday, Gov. Doyle issued a statement and a fact sheet further outlining the potential consequences of not moving forward with the project.

“Over 400 Wisconsin workers were scheduled to work on the project over the next several months and now face the real possibility of being laid off," the governor's statement said. "Over $14 million in expenses incurred over the last six months will need to be paid for by Wisconsin taxpayers. Necessary upgrades to the existing Hiawatha line between Milwaukee and Chicago totaling $82 million will no longer be eligible for federal assistance, shifting costs from the federal government to the state.”

As for Walker’s desire to simply transfer high-speed rail funds to pay for road and bridge repairs instead, that plan is a non-starter as far as U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is concerned. In a letter this week to the Wisconsin governor-elect, the secretary wrote:

“None of the money provided to Wisconsin may be used for road or highway projects, or anything other than high-speed rail. Consequently, unless you change your position, we plan to engage in an orderly transition to wind down Wisconsin’s project so that we do not waste taxpayers’ money.”

Meanwhile in Ohio, Governor-elect John Kasich on Friday called on outgoing Gov. Ted Strickland to immediately end two studies of a passenger rail line proposed to run between Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. Kasich called the project “one of the dumbest ideas” he’s ever heard and in his victory speech last week announced once again “That train is dead.” Kasich, who has criticized the rail line as slow and impractical for all but a few Ohioans, does not want any additional taxpayer dollars spent to study the project since he plans to cancel it, the Columbus Dispatch reported. Contracts with the two consultants conducting the studies are valued at up to $25 million. Ohio was awarded a total of $400 million in federal stimulus funds for the rail project this year. But Strickland administration officials said last week they weren’t going to terminate the contracts just yet as they were still trying to convince Kasich of the merits of the rail project as a jobs generator and economic catalyst.

If states like Ohio and Wisconsin do end up cancelling high-speed rail projects and returning federal funding for them, some governors say they’d be more than willing to take that money off their hands.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, re-elected last Tuesday, told the Chicago Tribune: “We’re here, here we are. We’ll be happy to take it.”

“We’d love to have it,” Illinois Transportation Secretary Gary Hannig told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Newly elected New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in a letter to Transportation Secretary LaHood last week wrote: “If these governors-elect follow through on their promises to cancel these projects, a Cuomo administration would move quickly to put the billions in rejected stimulus funding towards projects that would create thousands of good jobs for New Yorkers.”

To be continued…

Exit Oberstar, Enter Mica

The Republican takeover of the House and the loss by 18-term Congressman James Oberstar in Minnesota means the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will have a new chairman in the next Congress. That person is likely to be Florida Congressman and current committee ranking Republican John Mica. We now know more about what his focus and priorities will be as chairman.

The day after the election, Mica said in a statement that as chairman he would work to speed up the process by which infrastructure projects are approved and free up any infrastructure funding that has been “sitting idle.”

“Among my top legislative priorities will be passing a long-term federal highways and transit reauthorization, a long-overdue Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization, a new water resources measure, and a long-term Coast Guard reauthorization,” Mica’s statement said.

SAFETEA-LU, the previous legislation authorizing federal highway and transit programs that was passed in 2005, officially expired more than a year ago and the programs are currently operating under temporary extensions.

Mica joined with Oberstar last year to draft a six-year, $500 billion successor to SAFETEA-LU that did not move forward because there was no consensus on a way to fund the bill. This week The Hill newspaper reported that Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) wrote to the chairmen of President Obama’s debt commission advocating for a 25-cent per gallon federal gas tax increase to be phased in over a three-year period. But Mica and others (including Obama administration officials) have said the idea of raising the gas tax to generate infrastructure funding is “off the table.”

“When I have billions sitting in accounts, billions in harbor maintenance that is still sitting there, and unused stimulus money for transportation, I don’t think it’s needed,” Mica told the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.

The presumed incoming chairman has also been talking in recent days about the potential timetable for consideration of a reauthorization bill.

“We have to get a bill up early (next) year, because I have to get it through the Senate,” Mica told the Times-Union. “I only have until about August. That’s when the presidential politics begin.”

Mica’s committee, by the way, is just one of seven House and Senate committees that will handle transportation funding and policy issues in the next Congress. Several of them will also be under new leadership next year, as this article from AASHTO points out.

High-speed rail funding, by the way, is an area that Mica believes may be ripe for re-evaluation. Mica said in an interview last week with the Associated Press that he wants to re-examine $10 billion in federal high-speed rail grants because he doesn’t agree with the projects selected for funding by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"I am a strong advocate of high-speed rail, but it has to be where it makes sense," Mica said in the interview. "The administration squandered the money, giving it to dozens and dozens of projects that were marginal at best to spend on slow-speed trains to nowhere."

Mica said high-speed rail projects must carry enough people and truly reach high speeds as they do in Europe and Asia. He believes high-speed rail funding would be better spent in areas with population densities great enough to support rail networks such as the Northeast.

Northeast region rail projects were not among those that received recent federal grant funding.

Mica’s home state of Florida, however, did receive $800 million for an Orlando-to-Tampa rail line during the most recent round of funding three weeks ago (all told the project has received more than $2 billion in federal funds). Incoming Republican Gov. Rick Scott during his campaign initially opposed spending money on the rail line but he seemed to soften his stance later, especially in the wake of the latest federal investment and support for the project from other Republican leaders.

But Mica said last week he would prefer seeing the project scaled back to a line that would run between the Orlando airport and area theme parks and tourist destinations.

On Thursday, Mica told The Tampa Tribune that completion of the Orlando-to-Tampa rail line would likely have to be tied to the private sector kicking in funding for the $2.6 billion project.

“I want private dollars involved in this," Mica told the newspaper."If someone in the private sector puts up $500 million and that's $100 million short – I'm in an excellent position to assist. But I don't want the private sector to see this as a gravy train."

There is more about Mica’s record and views on high-speed rail on his committee website. And Mica’s agenda for transportation is further pondered in this blog post from The Transport Politic from last week.