Dems, unions speak up for Amtrak in the fight over national rail plan

Amtrak supporters pushed back on months of criticism of the subsidized agency Thursday as Republicans planned to introduce a bill to remove it from contention to develop high-speed rail in the Northeast.

Conservatives have targeted rail initiatives pushed by President Obama, and Amtrak has loomed large in the crosshairs of Republicans as they move to cut federal spending. 

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House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) and Rail subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said Thursday that they would introduce legislation to separate the Northeast Corridor used in the federal grant process from the national rail service. 

“We plan to introduce legislation to separate the Northeast Corridor from Amtrak, transfer it to a separate entity and begin a competitive bidding process that would allow for a public-private partnership to design, build, operate, maintain and finance high-speed service,” Mica said in a statement released after a committee hearing. 

“Our plan would do so in a dramatically shorter time, in closer to 10 rather than 30 years, and at a fraction of the $117 billion cost proposed by Amtrak, while creating new jobs,” he said. 

Mica and other Republican leaders have repeatedly called Amtrak “a Soviet-style operation” in recent months. But during the hearing Thursday, AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Edward Wytkind said the comparisons should go the way the former communist stronghold has gone.

“Many criticize Amtrak and liken it to an old-school Soviet passenger rail system,” Wytkind said. “Those critics aren’t paying attention. Today’s Russia is planning for the future by developing 250 mph service between St. Petersburg and Moscow. They are investing three times what the U.S. invests in rail as a percentage of its economy.

 “More to the point, the Amtrak they disparage simply does not exist today and, unlike some of its predecessors, current management has a vision for the future,” Wytkind continued. 

Mica argues Amtrak cannot 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 this week. “Amtrak has not proven itself capable of managing large-scale projects, 30 years is too long, and the cost is much too high.”

The chairman, who has long been critical of the federal subsidies Congress pays to Amtrak, did not back down Thursday. 

“We have tried things Amtrak’s way for 40 years without success,” his office said in a statement to The Hill. “We must bring the private sector and competition to the table. Instead of throwing more and more taxpayer dollars at the program, our plan does more with less — by leveraging private-sector investment, increasing competition and opening the door to public-private partnerships, we can finally bring true high-speed rail to the NEC, and in half the time and at significantly less cost.”

Another witness testifying before the panel, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), strongly disagreed.

Lautenberg 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.

Lautenberg said 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.”

Lautenberg added that “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.”

However, Mica said that in this Congress, which consists of several Tea Party-affiliated lawmakers concerned with cutting spending, investing in Amtrak was highly unlikely. 

“If anyone is holding their breath for Congress to approve $117 billion for Amtrak’s 30-year plan, they’re going to turn blue,” he said.