House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) has fleshed out his plan to draw private-sector money to bring upgrade passenger rail service in the Northeast to high-speed levels.
The plan, which Mica discussed at a June 15 briefing, would end Amtrak's ownership of the Northeast Corridor from Washington, D.C, to Boston, seek bids to build, maintain and possibly also operate high-speed rail there, and include new, dedicated high-speed track along the route.
Amtrak has proposed a $117-billion, 30-year plan for the corridor but Mica contends that his proposal could do the job in 10 years and at a much lower cost. "We think we have a recipe for success," he added.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood commended Mica for focusing on high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor, but LaHood added that "based upon our preliminary review, we have many questions about the Mica proposal's feasiblity."
LaHood said, "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 for the work or could be part of teams that would bid.
He said the contract could be a build-maintain or a turnkey proposition.
Under the plan, the corridor would be split from Amtrak and taken over by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation. DOT would review bids for the high-speed rail service and narrow the contenders down to two or three finalists.
A new Northeast Corridor executive committee, which would include members representing federal and state governments, would pick the winner.
Mica said he planned to introduce his bill early in the week of June 20 and hold a committee vote on the measure on June 22.
Former Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell (D) praised Mica's plan to concentrate on the Northeast Corridor and to seek private funding. Rendell emphasized, "We cannot do this on existing lines. 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."
Rendell said the federal government would not provide all the funds needed for a new high-speed rail program in the corridor. He added, "The only way we're going to get the money necessary to make this line a reality is a public-private partnership, with the states along the line, the federal government and the public sector all contributing."
Amtrak President Joseph Boardman said that the corridor "is not just a piece of real estate" and added that Mica's proposal "takes Amtrak apart only to put something in its place that looks quite similar."
Boardman added, "I hope to have a serious and constructive discussion about how rail operations in the Northeast should be managed, but it appears this bill will be rushed through committee next week."
Still, Mica probably has enough Republican votes to get his bill through committee and the House floor.
But it is likely to stall in the Senate, which Democrats control. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), said of Mica's plan, "The House proposal would take our nation's rail system off the tracks. The Republican proposal to privatize rail on the Northeast Corridor would increase costs for passengers and make rail travel less reliable."