Mica takes the transportation helm

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Americans have tightened their belts during these difficult economic times, but the federal government has not. Congress must become a better steward of the people’s money and resources.” –John Mica, R-FL, incoming chairman of the House of Representatives’ Transportation and Infrastructure Committee

There are always the inevitable power shifts after national elections like the one we had this week. In this case, however, a large chunk of it is going to hit the transportation industry smack dab between the eyes as Republican John L. Mica (pronounced “My-Ka") takes the helm as chairman of the House of Representatives’ Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the largest committee within the U.S. Congress.

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Mica is no newbie either and is well versed in many of the issues facing transportation in this day and age. First elected to the U.S. Congress in 1992, Mica represents the 7th Congressional District of Florida, which stretches across six counties from the suburban areas north of Orlando to the Jacksonville city limits.

In 2008, during the 110th Congress, Mica was elected by his peers to serve as the Republican Leader of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, then chaired under James Oberstar (D-MN) who lost his re-election bid to Republican Chip Cravaack this week – abruptly ending a 36-year Congressional career, the last three spent as chairman of the transportation committee Mica will now command.

Oberstar spent much of his chairmanship in an ultimately futile effort to pass a $500 billion reauthorization of the so-called “highway bill.” Now Mica will take up that gauntlet to see if he can succeed where Oberstar failed.

“Among my top legislative priorities will be passing a long-term federal highway and transit reauthorization, a long-overdue Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization, a new water resources measure, and a long-term Coast Guard reauthorization,” Mica said in a prepared statement following the election this week.

“I will also focus on major initiatives to find ways within the Committee’s jurisdiction to save taxpayer dollars. That includes better management and utilization of federal assets, including real property, and more efficient, cost effective passenger rail transportation, including a better directed high-speed rail program,” he added.

It’s interesting to note that he’s a strong proponent – like Oberstar – of shifting more freight and passenger transport from roads to rails. “We could dramatically increase service, employment and take cars off the roads—saving energy and positively impacting the environment,” he said last month in Florida at the dedicated of a new Amtrak “auto train” station in Sanford, FL. “Other auto train services should be considered, including a truck train where semis and their cabs are similarly transported by rail like in Europe and in other countries.”

Though Mica is known to be a cost-cutting hawk of sorts – he’s received the “Golden Bulldog” award from the Watchdogs of the Treasury group every year since 1993 for efforts to reduce federal spending – he championed raising highway bill funding to $1.5 trillion in an effort both to overhaul U.S. transportation infrastructure and create jobs.

[Here’s an interview he gave in 2009 detailing his highway bill funding objectives, among others.]

Mica also has a reputation for being outspoken (and quite blunt) in both his support and critiques of various government efforts.

One that’s drawn his ire of late is the effort to create Transportation Worker Identification Credentials (TWICs) that include not only a photo but biometric identification markers as well, to make such IDs almost tamper proof.

The FAA has spent six years trying to create such licenses for commercial airline pilots and to date hasn’t produced any – and Mica let them know his displeasure last month

“When I chaired the Aviation Subcommittee six years ago, we worked to require in law the development of a tamperproof pilot’s certificate or license and eliminate the ‘Cracker Jack prize paper’ identification that had been in use at the time,” he said in a written statement.

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“It is mind-boggling that six years later, after spending millions of dollars, the FAA license still does not include the pilot’s photo or any biometric measures,” Mica added. “This fiasco was brought to us by three finger-pointing agencies – DHS [Department of Homeland Security], TSA [Transportation Security Administration], and FAA – each blaming or waiting for the others to act first. This looks like a ‘Three Stooges’ episode. This is a sad commentary on federal ineptitude, especially considering that a commercial pilot’s license is one of the most important security documents issued by the government.”

Mica went on to note that this is only the latest federal ID card fiasco. “A TWIC for maritime industry workers was mandated in 2002, and after slow progress and missed deadlines, TSA finally began issuing TWIC cards in October 2007,” he said. “However, even after these delays, there are still no approved readers in use to verify the TWIC’s biometric identifiers. Without any readers, TWIC cards are no more useful as a biometric ID than the plastic cards issued by the FAA.”

Most port employees, fhe pointed out, in the U.S. are required to purchase the $132.50 high tech TWIC card as required under the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002. After Congress grew frustrated with the slow development of the cards, Mica said, it set a deadline to issue TWIC cards in the SAFE PORT Act of 2006.

“TSA missed the July 2007 deadline to issue the cards, and has also missed the April 2009 deadline to issue final rules for the deployment of TWIC readers,” he noted. “TSA is still conducting the pilot program and does not expect to issue final rules for the readers until late 2012. Yet biometric identification cards are not a new technology for government agencies. The U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Energy and most nuclear power plants regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) employ biometric technologies in access control, as does the New York Police Department.”

[The clip below gives a glimpse of Mica in a more informal setting, discussing traffic congestion and other major transportation challenges from a panel he participated on in 2009.]

Mica is also a big believer is re-working how federal dollars are spent not only in the transportation sector but on a far broader basis. That’s one reason he opposed President Obama’s $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) – known to as the “stimulus bill” – passed in February 2009.

“I did not support the stimulus legislation because less than seven percent of the $787 billion measure was devoted to infrastructure,” he said in a speech last month. “My attempts since have been to fast-track projects. Unfortunately, 61% of the stimulus funding sits idle today.”

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He participated in crafting a report, entitled Sitting on Our Assets: The Federal Government’s Misuse of Taxpayer-Owned Assets, that identified up to a quarter of a trillion dollars in potential savings that could be achieved by eliminating waste, better managing critical federally-owned assets, and operating government programs with more efficiency

“This report examines opportunities for saving taxpayer dollars in major areas under the jurisdiction of the Committee, including the Department of Transportation, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers, the General Services Administration, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency,” he explained.

“Using this report as a blueprint, the federal government could save the taxpayers billions, and if every committee in the House prepared a similar report, we could target trillions in potential savings,” Mica noted.

Now, he is in a position to get some of these ideas off the committee desk and into potential legislation – if those ideas still find support among his Congressional colleagues now in the majority within the House. We'll see how that plays out in the days ahead.

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