House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) on May 26 outlined a high-speed rail (HSR) proposal that would offer an alternative to the $117-billion, 30-year version unveiled by Amtrak last September.
Although both plans offer opportunities for private investment, Mica’s proposal goes much farther—essentially transferring from Amtrak to the private sector the responsibility to develop HSR along portions of the congested Northeast Corridor.
Mica only presented an outline with few details. But he said his proposal, which he plans to incorporate into legislation within the next few weeks, would allow for public-private partnerships to design, build, operate, maintain and finance HSR passenger service along the Northeast Corridor, which runs from Washington, D.C., to Boston.
This plan would be completed in 10 years “at a fraction of the cost” of the Amtrak proposal, he said.
Amtrak’s plan also calls for private investment to finance some infrastructure needed to develop HSR service, but Amtrak would retain its role as the system’s key developer and operator.
At a May 26 congressional hearing, Mica was critical of Amtrak’s proposal. “Amtrak’s plan to bring high-speed service to the Northeast Corridor is unacceptable. We can attract private sector resources and expertise and do it in less than half the time.”
Other GOP lawmakers said they supported Mica’s proposal. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said, We’ve tried it Amtrak’s way without success for nearly 40 years and it’s time to go down a new path and inject private sector competition.”
But most Democratic lawmakers were skeptical. Ranking member Nick Rahall (D-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 that Congress has consistently underfunded Amtrak, hindering its ability to make the infrastructure improvements needed to develop HSR.
Rahall added that several private investors had said at a Transportation and Infrastructure Committee roundtable in January that they would need to see substantial federal funding as part of the effort in order to consider investing.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who testified before the committee, told reporters afterwards that “Frankly, it’s going to be a heck of a difficulty to get the type of investment that’s required” in Mica’s plan.
But Mica said he was confident it could be done. He highlighted 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 said.
An Amtrak spokesman said Amtrak will refrain from commenting on Mica’s proposal until the detailed plan is released in mid-June. However, Amtrak officials in January stressed the importance of keeping the Northeast Corridor public.