A plan rolled out in the Republican-controlled House to offer Amtrak's Northeast Corridor to private operators in the hope that Wall Street investors will speed the arrival of truly high-speed trains is intriguing, but not ready to leave the station.
U.S. Reps. John L. Mica (R., Fla.), head of the House transportation panel, and Bill Shuster (R., Pa.), chair of a rail subcommittee, said their plan unveiled Wednesday would bring high-speed trains to the Northeast within a decade, rather than the 30 years envisioned by Amtrak. They predict the cost will be far less than Amtrak's estimate of $117 billion.
The Mica-birthed proposal also holds out the prospect of improving intercity passenger rail service across the country by opening up 15 other Amtrak corridors to competition.
Credit Mica with some clever, if cynical, framing of the debate. He characterizes Amtrak's tenure as "40 years of costly and wasteful Soviet-style operations."
However, while Amtrak has had internal operational shortcomings, its major problems historically have stemmed from a Congress that shortchanged its funding amid periodic partisan and regional political battles.
Members of Congress from areas of the nation little-served by the railroad were rarely as interested in providing adequate funds as lawmakers from urban regions where transit represents a lifeline.
Fortunately, while Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D., N.J.) sits in a Democratic-controlled Senate, any talk of privatizing rail service in the region won't go unchallenged. Lautenberg said he sees a future of higher fares and less reliable service under private operators.
The senior senator and author of the 2008 reauthorization of Amtrak accurately describes the high stakes. In testimony before Mica's panel in May, Lautenberg said I-95 would need seven new lanes to absorb today's rail riders should privatization efforts disrupt rail service in the Northeast.
The prospect of the resulting traffic jams and disruption to commerce should have Democrats and Republicans howling.
Mica's right about one thing: If there's money to be made in passenger rail service, it's going to be along the busy route between Washington and Boston, which serves Philadelphia.
No doubt, that's why private investors might be eager to get in on a good deal. The most savvy would look to gain access to this valuable infrastructure asset at a rock-bottom price, irrespective of the massive stake held by U.S. taxpayers. Then it would be off to the races.
To its credit, the Mica-Shuster proposal may prompt an honest discussion of federal investment in maintaining and upgrading a critical piece of the nation's transportation infrastructure. After 9/11 grounded the nation's commercial airplanes, the worth of that rail network to the nation's economy came into sharper focus - and that could happen again with a privatization discussion.
As Lautenberg told the House committee, "The fact is, Amtrak makes our region work - and we must invest in this critical asset."