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Today, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) and Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) held a briefing to discuss their plans for “a new direction” for high-speed and intercity passenger-rail in the United States, the congressmen said. That direction calls for introducing legislation that would encourage private-sector involvement for a 220 mph high-speed rail system along the Northeast Corridor, as well as on Amtrak’s least successful long-distance routes. Among their key points: • Amtrak would serve as an operating department under the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). • The legislation will be “centered on open competition and bidding of the services,” said Mica. “This would allow the Northeast Corridor to be bid on and have competition on two basis. First, to separate the infrastructure from operations, so you’d have the opportunity for two bids: one to maintain and control the infrastructure, and the second for an operating company.” The operations and maintenance also could be bid as a turnkey project, Mica added. • Amtrak could bid to operate and maintain the NEC. • The Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Operations Advisory Committee — which was created under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 and comprises representatives from eight Northeastern states, Amtrak and the District of Columbia — would make the final decision on a NEC operator. • Private-sector companies could bid to operate and maintain Amtrak’s least successful long-distance routes. “This is not an attempt to dilute the system in any way, but I think we can make service even better,” Mica said. “I think we can reduce the subsidization — and we will have to subsidize a number of routes, almost every form of transportation is subsidized — and I think there are opportunities for not only positive cash flow on some of the routes but investing some of that money to expand the system rather than be stuck in neutral as I think we’ve been.” If private companies develop high-speed rail service along the NEC, it could be done in 10 years rather than the 30 years Amtrak has proposed, Mica believes. Besides, the federal government “will never give Amtrak $117 billion in public money” for high-speed rail, he added. By opening up long-distance routes to private competition, as well, the federal government could “reduce the burden on taxpayers,” said Shuster, adding that the subsidy for Amtrak’s Sunset Limited route between New Orleans and Los Angeles averages $118 per passenger, although it can spike as high as $408 per passenger. “The traveling public will benefit when competition is put in place. It will promote the service passengers require, promote the frequencies the market will demand. It will work,” said Shuster. “It allows for private operators to make a profit and that’s the greatest incentive for attracting dollars.” Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, for one, supports Mica’s proposal for the NEC. During the Q&A session following the briefing he phoned in to comment, saying high-speed rail in the NEC would be a “tremendous economic boom, and will demonstrate to America that high-speed rail can work.” “I am not a critic of Amtrak,” said Rendell, praising the work the railroad did to upgrade service in the Keystone Corridor. “I support this plan for the plain and simple reason that there is not going to be $100 billion of federal dollars available for a high-speed line for just the Northeast Corridor, and the only way we’ll get the money to make this a reality is between states along the line, the federal government and the private sector.” Other participants asked questions about how the existing NEC services and infrastructure would be affected. By moving Amtrak trains to a separate, dedicated track, capacity would be freed up on the existing corridor, Mica said. And if NEC services began making money (as Mica believes they will), money would be available to reinvest in the corridor to bring existing infrastructure to a state of good repair. Mica and Shuster plan to formally introduce their legislation on June 21. Until then, they’ll be accepting comments. And although the legislation is bound to be altered a bit as other stakeholders weigh in, it will pass, Mica said. “It may not pass in this session, I guarantee it will pass in the next 36 months,” Mica said. “I invite folks to work with us and hope we can have a good proposal that will make passenger-rail service efficient and cost effective.”
Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman is scheduled to hold a media conference today at 2 p.m. EDT to discuss his thoughts on Mica's proposal. HSRupdates.com will report on his comments later today.
— Angela Cotey