At a meeting with members of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association Tuesday, House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica softened his stance somewhat on his plan to privatize the Northeast Corridor.
He acknowledged that the proposal is “controversial” and said that was why he framed it in a separate bill, apart from the rest of the reauthorization. He said he’s “heard the concerns” about the plan. A member of his staff said that the original plan was being portrayed as transferring Amtrak’s assets away from it, while leaving Amtrak holding the bag on the debt. “Which, when you put it that way, does sound sort of unfair,” the staffer said, indicating that issues like those are being worked out.
Andy Kunz, president and CEO of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association, said he was glad to see Mica striking a more cooperative tone. “His initial bill and his initial hearing was a little bit ‘This is it; take it or leave it’,” Kunz said. “Now he’s recognizing there needs to be a bit more cooperative action.”
The committee isn’t easing up on everything, though. The staffer also stated that the committee was giving inter-city and passenger rail “a temporary rest” while it focuses exclusively on high-speed rail. “It does not serve the two programs well to be ‘smooshed,’ or put together and consolidated the way they have been and then have most of the projects that receive funding not be high-speed rail in any way, shape, or form.”
In response to the Congressional Research Service’s conclusion that the rail privatization scheme could run into constitutional problems, Mica’s staffer was dismissive, saying CRS merely warned that some courts could find it to be a violation, and they should be careful. (Sounds like a finding of unconstitutionality to me.)
As he often does, Mica spoke of his high-speed rail plans as a way to rescue high-speed rail from the Obama administration’s mismanagement and bungling. He often jokes about the “gift that keeps on giving”: the original $8 billion allocated for high-speed rail, some of which has been returned by gun-shy states and re-allocated.
Mica asserted that the involvement of the private sector is “non-negotiable” – which Amtrak itself would agree with, as it’s already seeking private sector partners. Mica gave Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman credit for being on board. “Boardman sees that you cannot [upgrade the NEC to high speeds] – at least in his lifetime – under the current proposal,” Mica said. He also said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is “willing to negotiate.” But he cast blame on Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), who he said are willing to give “none of the pie” to private investors.