Congress should allow private companies to provide super-fast rail service in the Northeast Corridor because Amtrak seems incapable of doing so, the chairman of the House transportation committee said Thursday.
The comments by Republican Rep. John Mica of Florida drew harsh criticism from Democrats, who accused Republicans during a hearing of trying again to kill off Amtrak, as President George W. Bush once tried to do.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat and a staunch Amtrak ally, testified that the quasi-public railroad is seeking private-sector input as required under a 2008 law he helped write.
But Congress also must increase spending on rail to keep pace with nations like Spain, France, Germany and Japan, Lautenberg said, or risk being “stuck at the station.”
Congress spent $40 billion on interstate highways last year — more than it has spent on Amtrak during the railroad’s 40-year history, he said.
Lautenberg told reporters that Democrats who control the Senate would derail any corridor-privatization plan that passes the GOP-controlled House.
“Amtrak has operated passenger rail service on the Northeast Corridor since 1971, and today employs more than 1,000 Delawareans,” Sen. Tom Carper said in a statement. “Handing over Amtrak’s public assets to a private entity could put these jobs in jeopardy.”
Mica organized the hearing to examine how Congress can attract private rail operators to the Washington-to-Boston corridor. He said he’ll soon unveil a privatization plan.
Though Acela high-speed trains can travel at 150 mph, Mica said they average 83 mph between Washington and New York.
Amtrak’s own statistics show that ridership on the Northeast Corridor has declined slightly over the years — from 10.6 million in 1977 to 10.5 million in 2010, Mica said.
“This is probably one of the most dismal records on earth for passenger rail service,” he said.
He dismissed Amtrak’s estimate that it needs $117 billion over 30 years from Congress to upgrade the corridor’s infrastructure so trains could travel as fast as 220 mph.
“You’re going to turn blue because that’s not going to happen,” Mica said.
Instead, he said he wants to spend little or no taxpayer money to develop “true” high-speed rail service — which exists in some European countries and Japan — by having private operators provide it.
“We have great potential in the Northeast Corridor,” Mica said. “The only things standing in the way right now are Amtrak and the federal government.”
Rep. John Carney, D-Del., believes private companies have no incentive to build or operate high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor “because of the enormous start-up costs, infrastructure hurdles and land issues,” his spokesman, James Allen, said in an email.
“This is a ploy to defund Amtrak, which is increasing speeds, improving reliability, and on pace for yet another year with record ridership and revenue,” Allen said.
West Virginia Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall, the transportation committee’s ranking Democrat, said Congress created Amtrak because private railroads didn’t want to offer passenger service.
Private companies still want nothing to do with passenger trains, Rahall said. No firm stepped up two years ago when the Transportation Department solicited industry proposals for high-speed service on the Northeast Corridor, he said.