Amtrak chairman: Hill critics can be won over

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The chairman of Amtrak’s board of directors thinks the nation’s passenger rail service can eventually win over congressional critics who have tried repeatedly to eliminate its federal funding. 

Amtrak has traditionally received about $1 billion per year from Congress since its inception in 1971. Republicans in the House, however, have attempted several times in recent years to cut the funding and privatize service in the northeast U.S., which is home to Amtrak’s most profitable routes. 

Amtrak Board Chairman Anthony Coscia said in an interview on Thursday with Progressive Railroading magazine that the railway’s harshest critics could still be swayed. 

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“The best way for us to convince those in Congress who have some skepticism about Amtrak is to do our job well,” he told the magazine. “So if we properly use the resources we’re given every year, if we run the business more efficiently, if we reduce our operating subsidy, if we ever get lucky enough to get the capital investment we need and spend it in a way that produces strong results, I think we’ll turn around even those who have the strongest negative views about Amtrak.” 

Amtrak has touted record ridership increases in recent years to rebut conservative critics who argue that the federal government should not be supporting the development of passenger rail service in the U.S. The company said last year that it carried 31.6 million passengers in fiscal 2013, which was up from 31.2 million in 2012. 

Coscia said that Amtrak’s improving performance will likely make it easier for the company to sell lawmakers on the importance of its subsidies. 

“I feel it’s very important for us not to focus on trying to convince people that Amtrak needs their help because our situation is dire, but rather convince them that we deserve their help because we are running a good company and it’s an investment that is very much in the public’s interest,” he said. 

“If this were the private sector … investors are attracted to companies that are well run and use their money well,” Coscia continued. “Not to those companies that say, 'Gee, we can’t figure out how to run our business, can you give us money?' Amtrak has to think of itself as a business, and a business that is convincing stakeholders and investors that it’s doing a good job.” 

Coscia said he intends to focus on reducing Amtrak’s reliance on operating subsidies so the company can use the money from Congress to improve its infrastructure. 

“We hope to get to a point where we need virtually no operating subsidy because we want Congress to consider more capital investment in the system,” he said. 

“We’re using assets that in some cases are over 100 years old,” Coscia continued. “Our argument to Congress is that we’re going to work incredibly hard to convince you that when you give us money, we will spend it well and won’t waste it. We know we have work to do to get better, but I think over the last several years, we have made incredible progress in that regard.” 

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