By Keith Laing
Democrats on the panel defended Amtrak, arguing that privatizing other modes of transportation like the airline industry has not worked out as proponents have suggested.
"There is no successful model of operating a [transportation] system more efficiently" after being privatized, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said. "It doesn't work."
Amtrak President Joseph Boardman added that Amtrak recovered 79 percent of its operating cost from ticket sales in the last year.
"That's really better than any other commuter railroad," he told the panel.
Republican lawmakers on the House Transportation Committee were largely unconvinced, however.
"Mr. Boardman has taken some positive steps at Amtrak, but I don't think it's enough," said Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who is likely to be the committee's chairman in the next Congress.
"Sometimes it's like castor oil: the medicine is a little bitter, but it makes the patient better," Shuster said of Republican efforts to force Amtrak to privatize some of its most profitable routes in the northeast United States.
Mica promised that the criticism of Amtrak was likely to get worse if Republicans retain control of the House after the November elections.
"If you think I'm tough on Amtrak, there's another group coming and you ain't seen nothing yet," Mica said, alluding to coming budget fights in the next fiscal year.
Boardman argued that future lawmakers should see Amtrak as a value for their constituents.
"When you add the net revenues that Amtrak generates from other activities that reduce our federal funding requirements — such as real estate, and our operation of contract commuter services that was the subject of the hearing earlier this month — revenues cover 85 percent of operating costs," he said in testimony submitted to the committee.
"What that means is that federal taxpayers pay just 15 cents of every dollar Amtrak spends on our operations," Boardman continued. "That's less than the cost of a small cup of coffee at the Starbucks in Washington's Union Station. And the longest line in Union Station these days isn't for Starbucks, but rather to board our trains."