Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL), the top Democrat on the Railroads Subcommittee, began her remarks at yesterday’s Transportation Committee hearing like this:
My notes say that I’m supposed to say, ‘Thank you Mr. Mica for holding today’s hearing.’ I don’t think so. Because I think legislation that affects the entire passenger and freight rail system in the United States deserves hearing, examination and debate. There are numerous legal, financial and operational questions that need to be answered before we auction off Amtrak to Wall Street investors.
The hearing was called at the last minute as a result of Brown’s and others’ demands for a full airing of Democrats’ concerns before taking quick action on the Republican plan to privatize Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.
Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL) started off blustery and aggressive, saying, “We’ll have a hearing every week if we have to until we get this done” and dismissing his critics’ concerns with visible frustration. Once he got that out of his system, though, he adopted a more conciliatory tone as he talked about Amtrak.
He introduced Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman with some self-effacing humility: “[Boardman] takes a beating from time to time, sometimes from me, unwarranted, and I apologize publicly for that, but he does as good a job he can with the cards he’s dealt,” Mica said.
That was just the beginning of Mica’s overtures to the embattled rail chief and his allies. He prodded Democrats and witnesses for suggestions for improving the plan, looking to incorporate their suggestions to build consensus for the bill. Significantly, Mica even allowed that the plan to privatize the Northeast Corridor could end up leaving Amtrak more or less intact, especially since Amtrak is already looking for private-sector partners to team up with.
“I’m not trying to limit any service they provide, or privatize all of Amtrak,” Mica said. “I don’t mind giving authority to Amtrak to do what we’re trying to achieve. I don’t know that we need to create a second entity to do this.”
He said he’d been told by Amtrak leaders in the past that they didn’t have the authority to team up with the private sector to operate and maintain the corridor. “The key is to attract private capital, so we have got to have the ability, for whatever entity, whether it’s Amtrak or another entity, to attract that private capital.”
Boardman indirectly chided Mica for his previous attacks on Amtrak, saying, “The stability of Amtrak and its future are critical to have any confidence in us as a centerpiece. And this legislation, and the way that we’re characterized on a regular basis, doesn’t sustain that in the investment public. And it’s not accurate. Sir.”