House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica backed off his controversial plan to privatize passenger rail on the Northeast Corridor today, announcing at a press conference that reforming Amtrak would suffice.
Mica stood with New York Representatives Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler at a conference held by the US High Speed Rail Association to announce further support for true high-speed rail along the Northeast Corridor. Mica has previously singled out the Boston-to-Washington corridor as the only proper location for high-speed rail (in contrast to the Obama Administration’s nationwide approach). Today, he urged that if any more high-speed rail funds are returned to the federal government, they be disbursed to the northeast. “Any further money for high-speed rail needs to go solely to the Northeast Corridor,” he said.
Mica said his goal was to see travel times as fast as in Amtrak’s ambitious proposal, but within a decade, instead of the 30-year timeline Amtrak set out.
Given Mica’s previous support for privatizing the Northeast Corridor, today’s announcement raises questions about how a revitalized push for high-speed rail along the route would be structured. Amtrak will be involved, Mica promised. “If there wasn’t an Amtrak, we’d have to create an Amtrak,” Mica said twice today. “It just needs reform.” He stated that he is no longer asking for the route to be taken away from Amtrak and that he is willing to compromise with other members of Congress and Amtrak leadership.
Even so, Mica still referred to Amtrak as a “Soviet-style train system.” It’s clear that ideological divisions linger.
Nadler, an opponent of privatization, added that there is now widespread agreement that private capital needs to be included in plans for the Northeast — Amtrak itself is seeking private investment — and also agreement that Amtrak will continue to serve the corridor. “If we all agree that Amtrak has to be the main vehicle,” said Nadler, “we have a lot of room to talk and to compromise.”
Mica did not announce or even call for additional federal funds for the Northeast Corridor, only saying he supported the reallocation of funding from any new states that return their rail money.
California is now by far the highest-profile high-speed rail project, and with the state announcing last week that the project’s estimated cost had more than doubled, Mica cast doubts about whether it would keep its funds. “I’ll give California a fighting chance, but it doesn’t look too good for the future,” he said. “If that money is going to lie dormant or just be spent, be tinkled away on a bunch of studies and not produce, I want that money here in the Northeast Corridor.” Mica added that he wasn’t trying to kill the California project, just lay out a Plan B for what would happen if it failed.
Rep. Maloney forcefully advocated for the creation of high-speed rail in the Northeast. “Our highways and airports are nearing capacity,” she said. “The Northeast Corridor contains 20 percent of the nation’s population and only two percent of the nation’s land.” There is, Maloney concluded, “no better program or project than investing in high-speed rail.”
In Mica’s keynote speech to the USHSR, he restated his pleasure that House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor had committed to maintaining current transportation funding levels rather than reducing spending to what is available in the dwindling Highway Trust Fund. “That gives us the money to do what we need to do,” he said.
Mica said that Boehner would be responsible for determining where the additional revenue would come from and did not mention the Speaker’s recent announcement that the plan is to pay for the transportation bill with revenue from oil drilling.
Mica also urged the crowd, made up of high-speed rail advocates and representatives from large transportation firms, to work to educate Congress on the need for high-speed rail. There are 19 freshmen Republicans on the transportation committee alone, he noted. “Most of them have not been on legislative bodies before,” said Mica. “We have a lot of educating to do.”