Rep. Shuster sees 'common ground' on Amtrak in next Congress

Incoming House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said Wednesday that he sees the potential for compromise on legislation involving Amtrak funding.

Speaking to reporters at the Capitol hours after formally being elected chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Shuster adopted a less confrontational tone regarding Amtrak than has marked the panel's tenor under Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.). 

Mica pushed hard in 2011 to privatize Amtrak service in the Northeast, which is its most profitable corridor. Shuster supported the effort, which was fiercely opposed by Democrats.  

But the long-time Pennsylvania lawmaker said Wednesday that there was potential to find "common ground" on Amtrak funding next year.

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"I believe there's a need for passenger rail in this country, especially in these… densely populated corridors around the country," Shuster said.

"The debate in Congress over the last 40 years since Amtrak was created…a lot of Republicans say 'it's a disaster, sell it off, let the private sector do it'," he  continued. "My Democratic colleagues say 'there is no passenger rail system in the world that is not subsidized. They're correct in saying that, but I think there's somewhere in the middle we can come together on this and that's where you have to find the reforms."

The law that currently contains Amtrak's funding, the Passenger Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA), is set to expire next year, so lawmakers will have to reauthorize it early in Shuster's tenure as Transportation Committee Chairman.

Making sure that happens will take "Amtrak management, labor, Congress, all of us sitting down at the table and saying 'we've got to fix this and we know there's going to be some pain," Shuster said Wednesday.

The comments followed a hearing chaired by Mica Wednesday in which Amtrak defended its record after a series of GOP hearings attacking its fiscal performance.

"There is no mode of passenger transportation, including aviation, that can be profitable only from the fares," Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman told lawmakers, though he noted the company's routes in the Northeast have generated a profit. 

Shuster said in his briefing that he agreed Amtrak was most effective in the Northeast.

"I think what the president did, I think he was wrong in trying to spread it around the country," he said. "We need to focus on one place. Let's get it right. Let's figure out how to do it right and then let's move it out to other places in the United States."

Other topics covered by Shuster in press briefing included aviation regulation and sources of funding for future federal transportation bills.

Shuster promised to be "very aggressive" in his oversight of the Obama administration. He also said that he was open to considering suggestions for alternatives to the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax. The gas tax produces almost $20 billion less per year than is spent by the most recent bill passed by lawmakers this year to fund transportation through 2014.

Shuster said he would consider long-term solutions to the transportation funding problem like the controversial vehicle-miles-traveled tax, where drivers would pay for the amount of driving they did instead of the amount of gas they buy.

VMT proposals have generated opposition from both conservatives and civil rights groups because of concerns about monitoring systems that would have to be placed on cars to calculate mileage. The recording devices would invade driver's privacy, they argue.

Shuster said Wednesday, however, that lawmakers may not have a choice but to switch to the electronic method of collecting user fees for transportation.

"Longer term, VMT seems to me to be the only way to stop the decline because we're all going to be driving cars five, ten years from now that are going 40, 50 miles [per gallon] or more, or maybe not using any gas at all," he said. 

Shuster acknowledged, however, that he has been in rooms where "the most conservative member in our committee and the most liberal member both say 'you're not putting transponders on my car,' so it's going to be a challenge."
 
Asked separately what he has learned from his father, former Rep. Bud Shuster, who was chairman of the Transportation Committee in the 1990s, Shuster said he has studied his father's tenure, but was not aiming to simply emulate it.

"I think I have license to say this; This is not my father's Congress anymore," Shuster said.

"Things are different," he continued. "To move legislation, I think certainly takes some of the skill set that he had…but also, you've got to make sure that you're listening to the…committee and the conference to move these things forward. I've learned a lot from him, but there's some things that happen around here today that he didn't have to deal with."