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Rail News: High-Speed Rail

Mica, Szabo debate national HSR plan's 'credibility' issue


Today, the House Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials held a hearing on strengthening U.S. intercity passenger-rail service through privatization.

Among those responding to subcommittee members’ questions were Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo; Stephen Gardner, vice president of policy and development for Amtrak; Pat Simmons, rail division director of the North Carolina Department of Transportation; Stan Feinsod of the Association of Independent Passenger Rail Operators; and Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO (TTD).

A good portion of the discussion included subcommittee members’ questions and comments on President Obama’s goal to build a nationwide high-speed rail (HSR) network so that 80 percent of Americans would have access to HSR in 25 years.

In particular, U.S. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who chairs the House Transportation Committee, expressed concern that the national HSR plan has lost “credibility” as a result of three states — Wisconsin, Ohio and, most recently, Florida — rejecting billions of dollars in HSR grants that the U.S. Department of Transportation had directed to their states.

“I am so dismayed. I considered myself one of the strongest supporters of bringing true high-speed rail to the United States and also expanding passenger-rail service where it makes sense to taxpayers,” Mica said. “But the launch of high-speed rail has been an absolute disaster.”

Mica asked Szabo how the national HSR program could regain its credibility, and also reiterated his support for developing an HSR network in the Northeast Corridor, a route he believes has a better chance than other states’ proposed projects — such as California’s — to get “true” HSR up and running more quickly and effectively.

“I believe we continue to have credibility,” Szabo responded. “And the fact that three states haven’t continued to move forward [with HSR] doesn’t change the fact that the majority of states do plan to move forward.”

But U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) disagreed with Mica’s characterization of the credibility issue.

“It’s not a lack of credibility with the [HSR] program, it’s a lack of leadership of one person [Gov. Rick Scott] in the state of Florida,” Brown said, noting Florida’s proposed Tampa-to-Orlando HSR link had the support of the state Legislature, local communities, business and industry.  It was only due to Scott’s decision to reject the funding that the Florida project is not moving forward, she said.

Later in the hearing, U.S. Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) asked Szabo what he believes to be the greatest impediments to developing a national HSR system.

Szabo said that, although the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 gave significant power to states to choose their own operators of passenger rail services, the need for “significant planning” places new challenges on state departments of transportation and federal transportation agencies.

“State departments of transportation and the federal government are very good at constructing highways because they’ve been doing it for 50 years,” Szabo said. “So we need to develop the same kind of standardized procedures, the same ability to systematically crank the products out.”

While some subcommittee members also asked panelists how the private sector can be used to increase competition in U.S. passenger rail, some members and at least one panelist expressed concern over how privatization would impact workers and labor unions.

“We are not opposed to private sector participation in passenger rail — in fact, there is plenty of private involvement today. But we are opposed to breaking up Amtrak,” said the TTD’s Wytkind. "Those who believe that privatization is a panacea ignore the fact that under this model, service would only be provided where it is profitable to do so for private investors.”

Buschon raised the point that unions could well be an impediment to private sector involvement in developing HSR.

Feinsod, of the Independent Passenger Rail Operators’ association, noted that commuter-rail agencies have long partnered with private contractors for a range of services without threatening labor agreements in place.

Several panelists also noted that the private sector interest in U.S. intercity passenger-rail service likely will intensify when there is long-term, dedicated commitment of public-sector funding for U.S. passenger rail operations.

Julie Sneider

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 3/11/2011