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Republicans and Infrastructure: Still Together, Despite Disagreements

From RPA's Spotlight on the Region

For those who support high-speed rail, targeted infrastructure investment, and transit-oriented policies, the clouds are not as dark as they seem.

That's the immediate implication of the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives that resulted from yesterday's midterm elections across the nation.

Certainly on the face of it, news is not good for trains or transit. One of the Democratic incumbents losing his seat is the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, James Oberstar. A year and a half ago, Chairman Oberstar outlined a $500 billion transportation bill, which included $50 billion for an ambitious national high-speed rail program. But without a viable source of revenue for that bill, aside from the obvious but politically abhorrent option of hiking the gas tax, it languished. Prospects for a bill of that size in a Republican House are slim indeed.

But hopes for passing a transportation bill, even one that includes a high-speed rail program, are not dashed. The Republicans may very well succeed in pushing through the "highway bill" after the Democrat's Congress and the Obama Administration failed to make it a domestic priority in the last Congress.

Infrastructure and transportation is traditionally a bipartisan issue - characterized by equal opportunity "pork." Under intensely partisan congresses, transportation bills passed in 2005 during the George W. Bush Administration, in 1998 during the Clinton Administration, and in 1991 during the George H.W. Bush Administration. The Surface Transportation Assistance Act even passed in 1982 during Ronald Reagan's administration and with the president's support, despite the Gipper's heavily anti-federal-government stances. The bill included a five-cent increase on the gas tax, part of which was a dedicated penny for public transit. As New York Lt. Governor Richard Ravitch likes to say, "It passed Congress like a knife through butter."

Of course a transportation bill shaped by a Republican House of Representatives is likely to look much different than the Oberstar bill. It would contain less outright spending and a greater reliance on financing tools, building on successful federal programs with bipartisan support like the new Build America Bonds, which have vastly outperformed the drafters' expectations.

These federal financing tools will require a shift toward raising more revenue locally, such as the new transportation revenue packages passed recently in the downstate New York region for the MTA, in Los Angeles with Measure R, in Denver for their FasTracks program, in St. Louis, and a handful of other cities. These local revenue streams can then be leveraged with federal financing tools, as in the Los Angeles "30-10" program, which proposes to accelerate a 30-year package of transit investments in 10 years, using federal loan programs and taking advantage of current low interest rates.

The changing dynamic in the House may also prove fortuitous for the Northeast Corridor. Republican Congressman John Mica of Florida is likely to take over as Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Rep. Mica is a vocal supporter of "true" high-speed rail, particularly in the Northeast Corridor. At our Regional Assembly last year he spoke forcefully about the need to pursue an ambitious vision of high-speed rail in the Northeast, along the lines of the recent Penn Design and Amtrak proposals. But Mica is no fan of Amtrak, the Northeast Corridor's majority owner. In a report released in October, he and some Republican colleagues recommended a public-private partnership to develop high-speed rail in the Northeast. It was titled, "Sitting on Our Assets: The Federal Government's Misuse of Taxpayer-Owned Assets," and provides insight into Republican thinking on infrastructure issues.

One advantage of Mica's leadership on transportation in the House is that he sees the big picture and long-term potential of the Northeast Corridor to be one of the preeminent high-speed rail corridors in the world.