Rail supporters get back on track with Amtrak victory

Rail supporters won a rare victory this week after a year spent mostly in retreat when the House backed off a push to privatize a major component of Amtrak service.

Republicans have worked to dismantle President Obama’s vision for a nationwide network of railways since they swept into power last November.

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This week, however, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), said he would no longer push to privatize Amtrak service in its most profitable region, the northeast.

Transportation advocates, many of whom are in the labor movement, staunchly opposed the proposal. They argued it would effectively end the longtime national passenger rail service.

Ed Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department, told The Hill that the victory on Amtrak privatization was sweet, but the fight over rail in Congress was far from over.

“We are hopeful the Amtrak privatization is off the table permanently, but we still have work to do to make Amtrak achieves full funding,” he said. “It’s an important step forward, but the work we have to do now is figuring out how do we bring public-private partnerships (to fruition).

“There are a lot of jobs out there, but it’s hard to get there when you’re fighting about zeroing out high speed rail,” Wytkind said.

That fight has been the struggle for rail supporters for most of 2011. Since taking office, Obama has argued that a high-speed rail network could eventually rival the interstate highway system that was built in the 1950s under former President Dwight Eisenhower.

But even before the year began, newly elected Republican governors in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida said they were rejecting money their states were awarded for high-speed railways by the Obama administration from the 2009 economic stimulus package.

Republicans in Congress, who were emboldened by their Tea Party-fueled success in 2010, set out to defund rail projects in states eager for the money like California.  At the presidential level, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney made defunding Amtrak a regular part of his stump speech.

Then came Mica’s proposal to create a new entity within the Department of Transportation that would oversee bidding by private companies for the right to build high-speed rail in Amtrak’s northeast corridor. The proposal would have come at the expense of Amtrak's own plan to increase the speed of its Acela trains to 220 miles per hour by 2030.

A spokesman for Mica told The Hill that the long-time Florida lawmaker was not trying to eliminate Amtrak with his proposal. In fact, Mica’s spokesman said the lawmaker wants to work with the agency to bring high-speed rail to the northeast more quickly.

“The (transportation) committee’s rail proposal was never about privatizing Amtrak – the proposal does not eliminate Amtrak,” Mica’s spokesman said in an email.  “It was and is about private sector competition to ensure that high-speed and passenger rail service in the U.S. is as efficient and effective as possible.

“Chairman Mica will sit down with anyone who shares the same goal of bringing true high-speed rail to the Northeast Corridor and improving U.S. passenger rail service,” the spokesman said.

Perhaps the biggest face of GOP opposition to rail that has emerged thus far, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), does not seem to think the politics have shifted at all. When reports were released showing the cost of building a proposed high-speed rail in California would be higher than expected, Scott basically said “I told you so.”

“The news…out of California that High Speed Rail cost estimates have now tripled to the $100 billion range reinforces that Florida made the right decision earlier this year to protect taxpayers from just this sort of boondoggle," he said earlier this month in a statement.

Scott, whose office coined the term “ObamaRail” this year to draw comparisons between the president’s proposal and his controversial healthcare law, was not the first governor to turn down rail money. But unlike the others, the money Scott rejected would have funded 90 percent of a long-sought proposed railway between Tampa and Orlando.

Scott has repeatedly stood by the decision, even as his popularity in Florida polls has declined.

Equally determined on the other side of the issue, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has promised the Obama administration will keep pushing high-speed rail. LaHood has said often that Scott was the only person in Florida state government who did not want the railway.

This week, LaHood, a former Republican lawmaker from Illinois, said Congress was the only thing stopping rail from creating jobs in the country.

“American manufacturers are on board,” LaHood wrote in a blog on the Department of Transportation website.

“Unemployed workers are on board, and the private companies with the equipment to do the job are on board and ready to hire those workers. All they need is a green light from Congress.”