GOP unveils plan to privatize Amtrak

House Republicans said private companies could provide high-speed rail faster and more cheaply than Amtrak as they rolled out their plan to privatize rail service in the Northeast on Tuesday. 

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) told reporters that the bill, which he said would be introduced next Tuesday, could achieve high-speed rail in the Northeast in 10 years. Amtrak currently has a 30-year plan.

Mica said the GOP privatization plan would cost less than Amtrak's $117 billion plan, which he said was important given the political climate in Washington. Mica also said he doesn't think the Amtrak trains would be truly high-speed. 

ADVERTISEMENT
"People are going to turn blue waiting for Congress to provide that money," he said. "They're also going to turn blue waiting for a high-speed train [from Amtrak]."

The high-speed rail envisioned by Mica would provide faster service for passengers traveling to locations between Washington and Boston than the Acela line operated by Amtrak. The proposal would remove Amtrak from control of the federally-designated northeast rail corridor and transfer it to the Department of Transportation. A newly-created Northeast Corridor Executive Committee would oversee bidding process for rail projects in the northeast.

Democrats on Mica's panel strongly disagreed with his assessment that private companies could better deliver rail service than Amtrak, rushing to the agency's defense Wednesday as Mica was speaking at the Capitol.

"Taking a play out of President Bush’s book, Republicans are dusting off a chronically unpopular proposal that will cripple Main Street by auctioning off Amtrak’s assets to Wall Street,” the ranking Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-W.Va.), said in a statement released Wednesday morning.

“Instead of abolishing Amtrak, Republicans should abandon this ill-conceived ideological assault on passenger rail service – just as we did when President Bush first proposed it – and work with Democrats to build true high-speed and intercity passenger rail in America,” Rahall said.

Rahall called the privatization plan, which Mica is co-sponsoring with Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), "a death knell for passenger rail service from coast to coast.

"Privatizing this profitable corridor will not merely affect train service in that region; it will have a devastating domino effect from coast to coast, leaving trains stuck at the station across the Nation,” Rahall said. “The Auto Train, Capitol Limited, California Zephyr, Cardinal, Coast Starlight, Empire Builder, Palmetto and Silver Service, Texas Eagle and so many other vital lifelines will no longer serve as engines of economic growth but will be mere relics of a bygone era.”

However, Republicans found Democratic support from former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who is now an MSNBC political analyst and co-chairman of an advocacy group dedicated to infrastructure improvements known as Building America's Future.

Rendell called into Mica's press conference to say that he is a supporter of Amtrak, but the privatization plan made sense to him.

"I'm not a critic of Amtrak. Far from it," he said. "But the only way you're going to get that money to make this project a reality is you have the states, the federal government and private companies at the table."

Rendell went on to try to preempt criticism similar to Rahall's, saying "this shouldn't be viewed as anti-Amtrak.

"It should be viewed as a proposal by those that support high-speed rail," he said.

Mica, who has frequently referred to Amtrak as a "Soviet-style operation," also tried to soften the perception of the bill, saying that it did not prevent Amtrak from bidding for contracts or teaming up with other companies that were interested in providing the rail service in the Northeast.

"If Amtrak can compete, we'll allow them to compete," he said. "We know they can't provide this service by themselves. They've testified in this room that they can't. But if they can partner with someone, we haven't prohibited them."

Mica added that private rail service in the Northeast could become profitable enough to subsidize private-public partnership in other parts of the country where Amtrak is currently losing money as the sole provider of rail service.

"We think the Northeast will be the cash cow and we can pour that money back in to some of those that want commuter rail improvements," he said.

Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman will respond to Mica's legislation in a 2 p.m. conference call with reporters.

This post was updated at 3:18 p.m.

More in Transportation

Union signals openness to GOP air traffic control privatization plans

Read more »