GOP takes aim at strengthened Amtrak

House Republicans will hold new hearings next week on Amtrak, which Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) is targeting for funding cuts despite recent record ridership numbers. 

The hearings are part of a year-long effort by Mica designed to prove Amtrak’s nearly $1 billion federal subsidy is a waste of taxpayer dollars.

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The latest GOP hearings will come after a Thanksgiving holiday that is usually Amtrak's busiest weekend of the year, and after the national rail passenger carrier has earned good reviews in New York and New Jersey for its response to Hurricane Sandy.

Amtrak supporters believe the company has boosted its political standing.

“There is a strong majority view on Capitol Hill in favor of Amtrak moving forward and keeping the enterprise funded,” AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Ed Wytkind told The Hill in an interview.

He noted that Republicans on Mica’s own committee were divided over a GOP effort to privatize Amtrak’s most profitable routes in the Northeast. The effort in 2011 failed because Republicans like retiring Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) joined Democrats in opposing the plan.

“The proof of this is when Republicans attempted an extreme position on privatization, they couldn't even get it out of committee because it was wildly unpopular,” Wytkind said. “That puts pressure on Republicans to think twice (about defunding Amtrak).”

Wytkind also believes the public response when Amtrak service was interrupted in New York and New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy helped its cause.

“Look what happened in New York and New Jersey,” he said. "Nobody in those situations were complaining about rail [subsidies].” Instead, people “were actually quite thrilled to see it restored.”

Mica, the outgoing chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, brushed back suggestions that Sandy would change his attack on Amtrak.

In response to a direct question about whether he would back off from his criticism in the aftermath of Sandy, Mica said only that he was pushing back hearings to adjust to the House's schedule.  

The GOP-led House Transportation Committee has held several hearings this year about Amtrak's finances to argue that Congress should stop bankrolling the national passenger railway. The topics of the hearings have included the cost of Amtrak's concession program and its plans to expand high-speed rail in the Northeast, which is the company's most profitable corridor.

Amtrak has traditionally responded to GOP criticisms by pointing to increases in its ridership in recent years.  The company said last month that it had carried a record 31.2 million passengers in the fiscal year that ended in September, and Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman told lawmakers in October that the company’s fare collections paid for a record 79 percent of its operations last year. 

Amtrak has said it had more than 724,000 passengers last Thanksgiving, which was also a holiday record for the company, and it expects to achieve similar numbers this year.  The AAA auto club has predicted that 43.6 million people will travel further than 50 miles away from home for Thanksgiving this year, though the forecast did not specify how many will take railways for their trips.   

Amtrak said this week that it was bracing for any passenger increase that comes.

“Thanksgiving is the busiest travel period of the year for Amtrak and America's Railroad is ready and prepared to accommodate additional passengers with extra trains scheduled in the Northeast Corridor, the Chicago hub, the Pacific Northwest and in California,” the company said in a statement. “Amtrak will use every available passenger rail car in its fleet and will operate its special holiday schedule in the Northeast as repairs have been made following Hurricane Sandy.”

The agency added that it would be serving passengers this week ”a traditional Thanksgiving meal featuring a fully-cooked turkey breast with gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce and side accompaniments.

"Pumpkin pie with whipped cream and maple walnuts will be offered as a dessert option," the company added.

Amtrak has vocal supporters in both the Democratically-controlled Senate and the White House, so its funding will likely remain on track despite the next round of Capitol Hill hearings.

Mica’s exit from the panel, however, will not provide much of a relief for Amtrak from the House GOP.

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), the incoming committee chairman, has worked closely with Mica on Amtrak issues as chairman of the House Railroad Subcommittee in this Congress.

The long-time Pennsylvania Republican has indicated that he will continue the Amtrak crusade after he assumes the transportation committee gavel.

Lawmakers will have to reauthorize the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA), which is the bill that provides funding to Amtrak and other federal rail projects, in 2013.