Dem: Amtrak privatization is unconstitutional

The comments came in a hearing scheduled by Rep. John Mica  (R-Fla.) after critics said they had not been given time to weigh in on the proposal to remove Amtrak from control of the popular Northeast Rail Corridor (NEC) and allow private companies to bid on operating the service.

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 the bidding process for rail projects in the Northeast.

Mica and his co-sponsor, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), have said private companies could provide faster service for passengers traveling to locations between Washington, D.C., and Boston than Amtrak's Acela trains.

Several supporters of Amtrak lined up Wednesday to disagree.

"We have seen the many examples of botched public transit privatization experiments, the well-documented failures of privatized federal prisons and the abysmal working and safety conditions found in privatized school bus operations," said Edward Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO union's Transportation Trades Department.

"In fact, Amtrak was created in 1971 because the passenger operations run by the private freight railroads went belly up 50 years ago," Wytkind continued. "We believe the only hope for true high-speed passenger rail is for Congress to join President Obama and finally unleash Amtrak. Instead of destroying Amtrak, Congress must fund the carrier at an adequate level, invest in infrastructure improvements, replace aging locomotives and rolling stock, and give the company's skilled employees a chance to deliver on the promise of faster and more frequent passenger rail service for more Americans."

American Public Transportation Association President William Millar agreed.

"APTA does not view public-private financing as a substitute for adequate federal investment in the nation's transportation infrastructure," he said, though he noted that his organization generally favors such partnerships as a way to expand access to railways.

"The Northeast Corridor is one of the most complex rail corridors in the world, with more than 2,200 trains operating over the Boston to Washington route each day," he said.

Every person testifying before the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Wednesday did not dislike the proposal, however.  American Enterprise Institute scholar Richard Geddes said the plan was worthy of support.

"Both the separation of passenger routes in the United States into the NEC and other, lower-density routes, and the introduction of competition using [public-private partnerships], are vital policies that will yield substantial social benefits," Geddes said.

Amtrak President Joseph Boardman strongly disagreed.

"In order for any public-private partnership to work, you need a partner that understands the key facts," he said. "That partner is Amtrak."

Boardman added that without Amtrak's Acela service in the Northeast, "this debate would not exist and there would not be such a clear alternative.

"Amtrak Acela service has demonstrated that this mode can be competitive in the United States," he said.