As mass transit officials, struggling to keep aging systems in usable condition, explored the possibility of private-public partnerships, Republicans unveiled on June 15 a plan to take the Northeast Corridor away from Amtrak and privatize it.

Photo by AP Wideworld
AMTRAK FACES ATTACK Republican-led proposal would strip Amtrak of Northeast Corridor ownership.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) fleshed out a plan to draw private-sector money to upgrade passenger rail service from Washington, D.C., to Boston to high-speed levels.

The plan would remove from Amtrak's control its 363 route miles of the 457-mile-long Northeast Corridor (NEC). The proposal would seek bids to build, maintain and possibly operate high-speed rail there, including new, dedicated high-speed track along the route.

Amtrak has proposed a $117-billion, 30-year plan for the NEC and seeks private-sector investment. But Mica contends his proposal could do the job in 10 years and at a much lower cost.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood commended Mica for focusing on high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor but said, “Based upon our preliminary review, we have many questions about the Mica proposal's feasiblity.”

LaHood added, “At present, we believe Amtrak is the entity most capable of taking the next steps to modernize rail service in the Northeast Corridor, which is why the administration has serious concerns about any proposal to privatize Amtrak's Northeast Corridor.”

Mica said Amtrak would not be precluded from bidding. Under his plan, drawn up with the assistance of Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), the U.S. Dept. of Transportation would assume control of the NEC, review bids and narrow the contenders to two or three finalists. A new NEC executive committee, to include members representing federal and state governments, would pick the winner.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell (D) praised Mica's plan, saying, “We have to build our own dedicated line. We can't share a line with commuter trains. We can't share a line with freight traffic.”

Amtrak President Joseph Boardman said the corridor “is not just a piece of real estate” and that Mica's proposal “takes Amtrak apart only to put something in its place that looks quite similar.”

Mica is likely to get his plan through committee and maybe the full House. However, the measure is likely to stall in the Senate, which Democrats control. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), said, “The Republican proposal to privatize rail on the Northeast Corridor would increase costs for passengers and make rail travel less reliable.”