Congressman John Mica: Northeast Corridor Must Be the High-Speed Rail Priority, and Amtrak Can Keep It

NY State Senator Malcolm Smith and U.S. Congress members Carolyn Maloney, John Mica and Jerry Nadler, speaking Tuesday at a U.S. High Speed Rail Association meeting (photo by Kate Hinds)

The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said Tuesday that nation's best shot at a viable high-speed rail line is in the Boston-to-Washington corridor -- and Amtrak can be a "full participant."

"Any further money for high-speed rail needs to solely come to the Northeast Corridor," said Congressman John Mica (R-FL), who promised to direct any rejected high-speed rail money to it.

Speaking at the U.S. High Speed Rail Association conference in Manhattan -- and joined by two Democratic members of New York's Congressional delegation -- Mica said that while it was fine to develop high-speed rail elsewhere, the focus needs to be here.

"While I want to give California every chance and opportunity to be successful," said Mica, "I think we have to redirect our efforts to having at least one success in high-speed rail in the nation. And that high-speed rail success needs to be here in the Northeast Corridor."

He added: "If even one more penny gets sent back to Washington from any high-speed rail needs to come back here."

Several states have already rejected funding for high-speed rail -- including Mica's own, which sent back $2.4 billion to the federal government earlier this year. And last week California released projections saying its bullet train program would cost almost $100 billion --  far above earlier estimates -- raising doubts about that project's viability.

Mica also said Tuesday that he will also hold a hearing in December on the status of high-speed rail and review the programs already in place.

But the big news was the change in Mica's attitude towards Amtrak -- and his reversal of his earlier position on privatizing the Northeast Corridor. "I'm willing to have Amtrak be a full participant in this process," he said Tuesday. "If there wasn't an Amtrak...we'd create an Amtrak."  Later in his talk he reiterated: "we can continue again having Amtrak be a partner in this, no one wants to push them overboard."

That's what Mica wanted to do several months ago, when he introduced legislation that aimed to take the Northeast Corridor away from Amtrak, deed it to the U.S. Department of Transportation, and privatize the development of high-speed rail. He said Tuesday he knew that proposal had been "controversial."

In a press conference afterward, he was asked why he had a change of heart. "We did put a proposal out there that we knew would be tough for them to accept," he said, referring his June legislation, "but that's what you do sometimes in the legislative process to get them to the point where they're willing to work with you to make something happen."

Mica has criticized Amtrak's 30-year timetable for building high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor as too slow. He thinks it can be done in ten to fifteen years.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said "there is widespread agreement that some sort of private capital can be brought into this, but I think -- I hope -- we have agreement that Amtrak has to be the main vehicle for it."