Interview: U.S. Rep. John Mica, House Transportation Committee Chairman - Business Travel News

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Interview: U.S. Rep. John Mica, House Transportation Committee Chairman

January 18, 2012 - 12:45 PM EST

Rep. John Mica

John Mica

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) about a year ago officially claimed the chairman's seat on the House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. That made his voice among the most prominent during national transportation debates, notably the political standoff on Federal Aviation Administration funding.

Last summer, the Senate rejected a House FAA funding bill that would have overturned a National Mediation Board rule allowing employees to form a union by a simple majority vote and included what Mica called "modest" cuts to the Essential Air Service program, which provides subsidies to smaller airports. As a result, the U.S. government lost its authority to collect air ticket taxes (as much as $30 million each day, according to various estimates) and FAA went partially dark, which meant suspended airport construction projects and furloughed workers.

Two weeks later, Senate Democrats announced they had accepted a compromise to extend FAA funding for a 23rd time. That extension is scheduled to expire Jan. 31.

On high-speed rail, Mica has criticized the Obama administration's plans (in February 2011, he compared a six-year, $53 billion plan floated by the White House to "giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio") and proposed his own plans, with a particular emphasis on the Northeast Corridor. He also continued to lambaste the Transportation Security Administration for having "strayed from its security mission and mushroomed into a top-heavy bureaucracy." BTN's David Jonas discussed these issues last week with Mica. Excerpts follow.

How confident are you that Congress this year will pass a long-term FAA reauthorization?

I feel fairly confident. We've resolved almost all the issues. There's just a few remaining, some of the tougher, bigger issues. I kind of forced the issue with one of the issues with language that the Senate didn't like to try to motivate them. If I have to, I'll take whatever measures we need to get it done. Twenty-three extensions—17 when the Democrats had complete control—is just unacceptable. But we'll get it done.

Is the Essential Air Service program still one of the sticking points?

Yes, it is. That, the total levels of funding, the slots at Reagan [Washington National Airport] and of course the NMB issue that some of the others hinge upon. Other than that, we are done with it. It is a good, comprehensive bill that has provisions in there for moving forward with NextGen air traffic control. I wrote the last bill, ironically [which technically expired in 2007]. It was a good piece of work that unfortunately has had to last longer than any other authorization.

Were there other lessons learned from the FAA funding lapse last summer?

No. I've said before that I'll do whatever it takes to move it forward. If I have to take other dramatic steps, I'll do that. Of course, I can't do anything myself. I have to consult with leadership, but I would do the same thing all over again that we did before just to move things forward. And it did help to move it forward, not just the FAA bill but also the transportation bill.

You have been a critic of the Obama administration's high-speed rail development plans, and proposed some of your own. What is the current status of funding?

We did two hearings [in December], one on the overall program that confirmed the Obama initiatives had basically imploded. And then we did a specific one on the only project that really had the potential to be high-speed, and that's in California, and that also has been a disaster. I tried to get [the administration] to do the Northeast Corridor first. We have the connections, we have the ridership and it would make the biggest impact. You'd have a success rather than a string of failures.

You haven't been the biggest fan of Amtrak, either. Do you propose to augment Amtrak service in the Northeast Corridor with private investment in high-speed rail or replace it altogether?

I said in December that I was willing to not move forward with a proposal to take Amtrak out of the Northeast Corridor, but I would insist on having the private sector participate in the development of high-speed service in the Northeast Corridor. Amtrak can't do it themselves. They have a terrible, 30-year plan that requires $117 billion that Congress would never get for them. To get it done, you need the private sector to have a piece of the action. That's my plan and I have meetings set up early this year with the administration and all the major players in high-speed rail.

You also have been a critic of the Transportation Security Administration. Do you have any optimism for that agency moving in a direction that you can accept?

Steam is building in Congress for TSA reform. A number of bills have been introduced, and if there is any Homeland Security reauthorization, TSA will take quite a beating in it. In addition to privatization of Amtrak, I am a strong proponent of privatization of screening. The United States is only one of a handful of countries now that has an all-federal screening operation. TSA needs to be reformed to be an intelligence-gathering agency rather than running a behemoth federal screening bureaucracy. Turn to the private sector for screening and let government do what it does best: gathering intelligence, sharing information between agencies and setting the protocol by which the private companies do the screening. But where do you start and end with an agency that is so incompetent and hasn't accomplished even the basic things like setting a standard for traveler or [airline] worker identification?

What are your top priorities for this year?

We mentioned FAA, and of course as long-term a transportation bill as I can get, which is essential for jobs and for making the federal government a reliable partner. It is the best economic tool that can come from this section of Congress. But it has to be long-term, and it has to streamline the process for project approvals. We give these short extensions for highway and transportation funding, which does not allow states to plan. They can't do extensive, multi-year plans.

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