House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) has outlined a proposal that essentially would transfer the responsibility to develop high-speed rail (HSR) on the Northeast Corridor from Amtrak to the private sector. Amtrak wants to keep control over the route and last September proposed its own $117-billion, 30-year HSR plan.
Mica says his proposal, which he unveiled at a May 26 hearing, would let public-private partnerships design, build, operate, maintain and finance high-speed passenger service along the corridor from Washington, D.C., to Boston. He says his plan would be finished in 10 years—much faster than Amtrak’s proposal—and would be done “at a fraction of the cost.”
Amtrak’s plan calls for private investment to finance some HSR infrastructure, but Amtrak would retain its role as the system’s key developer and operator.
At the hearing, Mica called Amtrak’s proposal unacceptable. He said, “We can attract private-sector resources and expertise and do it in less than half the time.”
Thomas Hart, U.S. High Speed Rail Association vice president for government affairs and general counsel, called Mica’s outline “a bold proposal” that could draw more bipartisan support than Amtrak’s plan. “I think we can do something quicker than 30 years,” he says.
But key Democrats are skeptical about Mica’s plan. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who testified at the hearing, told reporters afterward, “Frankly, it’s going to be a heck of a difficulty to get the type of investment that’s required.”
The House committee’s top Democrat, Nick Rahall (W.Va.), said, “I fear this is just another veiled attempt at derailing Amtrak under the guise of better service and cost savings.” He said Congress has underfunded Amtrak, hindering its ability to make infrastructure improvements needed for HSR.
Rahall added that several private investors at a roundtable discussion the House panel held in January had said that substantial federal funding would have to be part of the package for them to consider investing in HSR.
Nevertheless, Mica says he is confident his plan could work. He cited examples of profitable private-sector HSR operations, including Great Britain’s Virgin Rail. “If anyone is holding their breath for Congress to approve $117 billion for Amtrak’s 30-year plan, they’re going to turn blue,” he says.
An Amtrak spokesman says the railroad will refrain from commenting on Mica’s proposal until he releases a detailed plan in mid-June. But in January, Amtrak officials stressed the importance of keeping the Northeast Corridor public.