ST. PAUL–One of the more headline-grabbing stories involving Amtrak and New York of the past few months was a congressman’s proposal for the federal government to take bids to create a two-hour train from New York City to Washington, D.C.
The far-off, years-long, multi-billion dollar idea, which has passed the House and awaits a final resolution with the Senate, came not from anyone in the city, or from the Northeast at all, but rather from a conservative Republican from northeastern Florida, Representative John Mica.
On Wednesday, I briefly caught up with Mr. Mica, who was speaking on a forum on transportation issues here at the University of Minnesota.
Originally from Binghamton, the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee sounded a bit out of place in the Twin Cities this week, calling in a manner atypical of Republicans for billions upon billions in investment in the nation’s highways and other forms of transportation.
"Some people think I’ve been smoking the funny weed, hanging around with college students when I proposed a $1.5 trillion federal highway bill," he said at the forum. "But I didn’t pick that out of the sky–I think that’s the number that the American Society of Civil Engineers did in assessing society’s infrastructure needs."
He clearly has a passion for infrastructure, evident in both his criticism of the Bush administration on the issue (he said the administration has been "myopic" about using creative financing for infrastructure), and the first-person manner in which he speaks on the topic (he tends to refer to "my airports" and "my rail lines" when referring to national trends).
Still, Mr. Mica said after the forum that he approaches this issue from the right, with parsimony in mind.
"See, I’m a rightwing fiscal conservative, [a] tight S.O.B. with my own dollars and the taxpayers’ dollars, and when you look at the money we have, I try to stretch it so you get the most in return for projects," he said. "But I’ve got to define that."
With regard to the high-speed rail line from D.C. to New York, and then on to Boston, he acknowledged that the cost would be astronomical (many transportation experts have derided it as a waste of time to explore, given that it takes at its quickest about 2 hours 40 minutes to get between the two cities already).
"It’ll cost billions–it’ll cost probably $30 to $40 billion," Mr. Mica said. But the private sector will do the bidding, not Amtrak ("Soviet-style," he said of the rail carrier), and new money could come from revenue sources on the existing rail lines that Amtrak owns, which he calls "one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the world."
"You take that corridor," Mr. Mica said, "and I get high-speed rail on it, I separate it out, I get better commuter service, I get better freight service, and the big bonus is, it helps me solve my aviation congestion problem."