Thursday July 8, Congressman Mica (R-FL), Chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, held an event to outline his proposal to reauthorize the surface transportation program. His proposed legislation would set policy for highways, transit and other programs funded out of the Highway Trust Fund. High-speed rail and Amtrak have not been included in the program to date and may move forward in a separate bill.
Unfortunately, the Democratic members of the committee did not attend. They held their own event at which they focused on the low dollar amount of the proposal.
The previous authorization, SAFETEA-LU, expired on September 30, 2009. The programs have been extended with continuing resolutions since.
The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has a significant hurdle to overcome in laying out a new authorization. Gas tax revenues have declined in recent years as people drive less and in smaller cars. Meanwhile, increasing oil prices have caused the cost of highway construction, which is very oil-intensive, to climb. The resulting shortfall has been covered with direct subsides from the general fund totaling over $60 billion since 2008.
Raising the gas tax, which has remained a flat 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, has been judged a political impossibility. House leadership has said that additional direct subsidies are no longer acceptable.
As a result, Representative Mica has proposed cutting highway and transit spending by 34%, resulting in a loss of 490,000 jobs across the United States. He has also proposed eliminating many other programs funded out of the highway trust fund. While some committee members did sign a "dear colleague" letter to the Ways and Means Committee requesting a meeting to discuss ways to raise additional revenues, these still represent significant cuts.
The presentations and discussions that occurred during the event today highlighted the dysfunctional state of our current transportation infrastructure program. Clearly, the current transportation structure must change, and therein lies the opportunity for high-speed and intercity passenger rail. Congressman Mica even seemed to recognize this when asked about high-speed rail provisions in the bill. He said, "When you see the price of one car on the road, new high-way construction through metropolitan areas, or even our rural areas, you become an advocate of transportation alternatives." What this signals to me is that Congressman Mica himself, whether he acts on it with legislation or not, understands that in the process of changing our transportation infrastructure program, we need to start pursuing alternative transportation.
This creates an opening for high-speed and intercity passenger rail to move forward. Many of the long-held assumptions about the transportation program are going to be challenged. That gives us the opportunity to offer HSIPR as a real solution.
There is an immediate threat to be dealt with, however. The Energy & Water Development Appropriations Bill will be moving to the House floor next week. It contains language to rescind all the unspent HSIPR stimulus money. The much needed rehab of the the Chicago - Detroit Amtrak line will not move forward if this language remains in the final bill, in fact train speeds will drop to 25 mph over much of the route. Also, a much needed replacement of Amtrak's Midwestern fleet will not occur.
Rail supporters must let members of congress know that they feel high-speed rail is a very important solution and should be a priority when restructuring our transportation system! We are receiving reports that opponents of high-speed rail are out-calling and out-emailing the supporters. We must fight back, and we must make our voices heard!
That is why the Midwest High Speed Rail Association is working with other rail and transportation advocacy groups across the country to coordinate a National Call-In Day Monday, July 11th. Please check your inboxes on Monday for more instructions on how to reach out to your elected officials, asking them to fund high-speed and intercity passenger rail and protect already allocated funds.