Amtrak supporters warily eye Shuster as rail funding fight looms

Amtrak supporters are warily eyeing incoming House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) as both sides gear up for a potential funding fight next year.

ADVERTISEMENT
The Pennsylvania lawmaker, who is the son of a former Transportation Committee chairman, said recently that there could be "common ground" in the next Congress on rail funding.

Amtrak supporters are taking a wait-and-see approach, however.

"I hope to sit down with the new chairman very soon to find ways we can cooperate," AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Ed Wytkind told The Hill in an interview days after Shuster was formally installed as the next Transportation Committee chairman.

"But if they persist with the agenda of the last Congress, which was wholesale [Amtrak] privatization, we're going to lead the fight to oppose it again, because I think that is the wrong way to do rail policy in this country," Wytkind continued.

Shuster has supported past GOP efforts to privatize Amtrak service in its most profitable region, the northeast U.S. The proposal was defeated in 2011 when it divided Republicans on the Transportation Committee, with suburban lawmakers like retiring Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) joining Democrats in opposition to cutting Amtrak's funding.

The incoming Transportation Committee chairman indicated recently that he is not interested in refighting that battle when he assumes the panel's gavel next year.

"The debate in Congress over the last 40 years since Amtrak was created … a lot of Republicans say 'it's a disaster, sell it off, let the private sector do it,'" Shuster told reporters during a Capitol press briefing.

"My Democratic colleagues say 'there is no passenger rail system in the world that is not subsidized,'" he continued. "They're correct in saying that, but I think there's somewhere in the middle we can come together on this and that's where you have to find the reforms."

Shuster made a point of saying that he believed there is "a need for passenger rail in this country, especially in these … densely populated corridors around the country."

The comments were of interest to rail supporters because the bill that contains Amtrak's funding, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA), will be coming up for renewal next year. Congress created Amtrak in 1971 to replace a network of private rail companies. The company receives approximately $1 billion a year in subsidies from the federal government.

Wytkind said he hoped Shuster was being genuine in his assessment of the value of Amtrak.

"This was a rough Congress," Wytkind said of the 2011-2012 version of the House Transportation Committee, which saw contentious fights over rail and public transportation funding and union rules for airline employees.

"This had been a consensus building committee on both sides of the aisle … but they took a different path," he continued. "It became a one-sided operation where they didn't consult with Democrats or any of the natural allies."

Shuster indicated in his first official remarks as Transportation Committee chairman-to-be that he might be ready to have those conversations after he takes over.

"I think it will take Amtrak management, labor, Congress, all of us sitting down at the table and saying 'we've got to fix this and we know there's going to be some pain,'" Shuster said during his briefing.

Wytkind said in his interview with The Hill that it was important to change the tone of transportation debates in Congress.

"I hope with a new chairman, who comes from a bloodline of [compromise], that there is a shift back," Wytkind said in a reference to Shuster's famous father, former Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.).

"The country needs that," Wytkind continued on his theme of hope for common ground with the younger Shuster. "There are too many transportation problems that need to be dealt with."