Mica revives Amtrak privatization effort

Former House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) is aiming at of his favorite targets when he led the panel, Amtrak, with legislation to end its "monopoly" on rail service.  

Mica, who has remained a member of the Transportation Committee after passing its gavel to Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), said his legislation would open Amtrak routes in its profitable northeast corridor up to private sector rail companies. 

The legislation mirrors a 2011 House Republican effort to privatize Amtrak service in the Northeast that was unsuccessful when moderate suburban Republicans joined Democrats on the transportation panel in opposition to eliminating the rail company's federal funding.  

Mica vowed Tuesday to press ahead with his rail privatization plan anyway, however.

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“Since 1971, Amtrak has run a costly monopoly with Soviet style operations,” Mica said in a statement.

“Four years ago President Obama promised to provide access to most of the nation to high speed rail in 25 years," Mica continued. "Since then, his costly proposals have been rejected by at least three states; his California boondoggle is over budget and focused on a route with few passengers; his Midwestern route is a slow-speed excuse for high speed rail; and his all-government Northeast corridor project has soared to $151 billion and a 30-year timetable.”

Since replacing Mica on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Shuster has said that he hoped to find "common ground" with Amtrak after years of contentious fighting about its subsidies.

"I believe there's a need for passenger rail in this country, especially in these… densely populated corridors around the country," Shuster said in a briefing with reporters shortly after he was voted chairman of the Transportation Committee.

"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'," Shuster continued in his post-2012 elections comments. "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 remarks from Shuster were believed by rail supporters at the time to be an olive branch ahead of a Transportation Committee effort to pass a new the Passenger Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) this year.

The PRIIA bill, which contains funding for Amtrak and other intercity rail programs, is scheduled to expire this year, so it will have to be reauthorized early in in Shuster's tenure as Transportation Committee Chairman.

In his November remarks, Shuster said he thought that was possible to pass a new rail bill, but he said it would 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."

There was little conciliatory in Mica's announcement of his privatization bill Tuesday, however.

“Four years ago President Obama promised to provide access to most of the nation to high speed rail in 25 years," Mica said.  "Since then, his costly proposals have been rejected by at least three states; his California boondoggle is over budget and focused on a route with few passengers; his Midwestern route is a slow-speed excuse for high speed rail; and his all-government Northeast corridor project has soared to $151 billion and a 30-year timetable.”

During his tenure as Transportation Committee Chairman, Mica repeatedly held hearings about Amtrak's financial operations. He memorably went to a Capitol Hill area McDonald's to order a $1 burger and $1 fries to argue that Amtrak was spending too much on its onboard concession sales.

The Transportation Committee is holding its first full hearing under Shuster, on the "federal role" in road and transit funding, on Wednesday morning.