By Keith Laing - 12/13/12 07:06 PM EST
Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee sharply criticized outgoing Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) Thursday for dedicating his final meeting to privatizing Amtrak service.
Mica has long pushed to privatize rail service in the Northeast, which has traditionally been Amtrak's most profitable area of service in the country.
But Democrats lamented Mica's focus on eliminating federal subsidies for the company in his final hearing as chairman of the Transportation Committee, saying there were other issues would have been more worthy topics.
"I'm happy that we're having this hearing today, but I really kind of wish it was on [the] Water Resources Act, which is something that we have not dealt with," Rep. Corrine Brown (R-Fla.) said.
During his two years as Transportation chairman, Mica's held a series of hearings designed to attack Amtrak's federal funding. The company, which was created by Congress in 1971, receives approximately $1 billion per year in subsidies from the federal government.
Mica said Thursday that his efforts to privatize Amtrak were an attempt to preserve the future of rail service in the northeast.
"I want to tell our labor folks that I remain committed that making certain that the benefits, the wages, the retirement opportunities remain constant for our Amtrak employees; however, their future is dim if you continue down this path that some of the labor leaders have led our workers on," he said.
"We've gone since I came to Congress from 29,000 Amtrak employees to 19,000, and if you continue down this path, I don't think that's hopeful," Mica continued. "If we actually expand the service in the Northeast Corridor and create true high-speed service, I believe it will be replicated where it makes sense across the United States and opportunities for workers will expand, not contract."
Brown offered a much different taking on Mica's push for Amtrak privatization, however, noting that previous efforts to pass legislation eliminating the company's funding have been opposed by other Republicans from suburban districts on the Transportation Committee.
"Mr. Mica's unhealthy obsession with privatizing the Northeast Corridor has been[given] limited support and even violates the U.S. Constitution," Brown said, arguing that private companies have not expressed interest in running rail service in the Northeast at lower costs than Amtrak.
Other Democrats on the Transportation Committee said Mica was holding Amtrak to a standard of profitability that other is not applied to other forms of transportation.
"No one would suggest that it would be a good idea to privatize our roads ... yet we come back to this issue again and again," Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) said.
Mica said, however, that the Northeast Corridor was "one of the most valuable ... transportation infrastructure assets in the entire world, not just in the United States.
"It is an asset that we're sitting on that the taxpayers own," he said." It probably never will be developed to its fullest potential by Amtrak. The federal government just has trouble operating a two-car train set, let alone developing a corridor with incredible real estate and developed potential."
The Northeast Corridor has been the focus of the GOP's rail privatization efforts because its tracks are owned by Amtrak. Most of the company's other longer-distance routes run on tracks that are owned by freight rail companies.