NJ Dem: Amtrak 'makes our region work'

At a hearing Thursday on bolstering Northeast corridor high-speed rail with private investment, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) delivered a lengthy defense of the very public national rail service, Amtrak.

Lautenberg, testifying before Rep. John Mica's (R-Fla.) Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told House members that Amtrak "makes our region work."

"If we shut down the Northeast Corridor rail service, you’d have to build seven new lanes on Interstate 95 just to carry all the travelers that use these trains every day," Lautenberg said.

Mica has harshly criticized the Obama administration for focusing its efforts to increase the number of high-speed railways in the U.S. too heavily on Amtrak, which he has often derided as a "Soviet-style operation."

But Lautenberg said Thursday that Amtrak does not get as much money from the federal government as it is often characterized as receiving. 

"Last year, we spent more than $40 billion on highways," he told the panel. "Over Amtrak’s entire 40-year history, we’ve spent just under $38 billion total. That’s worth repeating: Amtrak has received less federal money in its history than highways get in a single year."

In calling the hearing Thursday, Mica said Amtrak could not efficiently handle the work needed to increase the speed of trains in the Northeast and build more there.

"While there is a need and great potential for high-speed rail in this congested corridor, Amtrak’s $117 billion, 30-year plan to upgrade [Northeast Corridor] service is unacceptable," Mica's office said in a statement Wednesday. "Amtrak has not proven itself capable of managing large-scale projects, 30 years is too long, and the cost is much too high."

Lautenberg strongly disagreed Thursday, saying "privatizing the Northeast Corridor is not a smart or viable way to meet these challenges."

"Let’s not forget: Congress created Amtrak in 1970 because the private railroads could no longer sustain inter-city passenger service on their own," he said. "When I was building my business, I learned firsthand — if you want to be successful tomorrow, you must begin laying the foundation today. The same principle applies here. If we want to leave our children and grandchildren a better country, we must make smart investments on their behalf — and that means investing in Amtrak.”