Republicans: Privatizing Amtrak Will Bring High Speed Rail to the NE Faster

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(photo by Steven Vance/Flickr)

Republicans said today that privatizing the Northeast Corridor would bring high-speed rail to the country faster -- and more cheaply -- than Amtrak can.

Congressman John Mica, the chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, has never hidden his disdain for Amtrak -- or his enthusiasm for partnering with the private sector.  In a statement today, he said:  “After 40 years of highly-subsidized, poorly-managed Amtrak operations, it’s time for Congress to change the direction of America’s failed high-speed and intercity passenger rail service...After spending billions of dollars, Amtrak and its snail speed, last-century level of service have reached the end of the line.”

The plan, which Mica unveiled today along with Congressman Bill Shuster, is called the  “Competition for Intercity Passenger Rail in America Act.”  The pair introduced it in a video conference.

A draft of the legislation can be found here.

The goal is to separate the Northeast Corridor -- Amtrak's busiest route -- from the rest of the system, transfer title from Amtrak to the US Department of Transportation, and put development of high-speed rail along the corridor out for bid. Republicans said this plan would increase ridership, lower costs, and bring fast trains to the corridor in less than ten years.

Amtrak, which had been going on the offensive this week about its high-speed rail plans for the Northeast Corridor, reacted swiftly to Mica's proposal. Joseph Boardman, Amtrak's president and CEO, aired his dismay in a  phone conference call held earlier this afternoon.  "There seems to be a lack of recognition that Amtrak is the right organization to deliver better intercity passenger rail service in this country," he said. Boardman said that Amtrak had made headway in reducing debt and improving equipment, and was already looking at a public-private partnership for high-speed rail in the Northeast. "This asset, this transportation artery is critical, and that ... is lost in this, because the focus of this particular proposal is about financing and real estate, not transportation first."

Democrats did not greet the proposal warmly. New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, who sits on the Senate's transportation committee, said that "the Republican proposal to privatize rail on the Northeast Corridor would increase costs for passengers and make rail travel less reliable. I will fight in the Senate to stop any plan that threatens Amtrak and commuters on the Northeast Corridor."

Other responses were more measured, if lukewarm. Petra Todorovich, a high-speed rail expert at the Regional Plan Association, said "we don't think it's the worst idea in the world." She added that Mica's proposal was useful in that "he's starting a conversation about what it would take to implement world-class high speed rail in the Northeast Corridor. This is the first time we’ve had this conversation at the congressional level.” But she added that "I think it's unlikely that private companies would bid unless federal money is on the table. You can't have a public/private partnership without public money."