Mica, Shuster: Obama rail program ‘an absolute disaster’

Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.) and Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) conducted a congressional hearing on March 11 on encouraging and increasing private sector participation in passenger rail service.

Both Mica and Shuster noted that “the Obama Administration’s passenger rail program has been an absolute disaster.”

“With Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida rejecting funds, and the California project also looking troubled, I don’t think the Administration’s so-called high-speed and expanded passenger rail program could have had a worse launch,” said Mica.  “The only chance of success for high-speed rail is to rely on the private sector and focus on a project that makes sense, particularly the Northeast Corridor. The questions now are how do we regain our credibility after so much damage has been done, and how can we find a better opportunity to bring true high-speed rail to the congested Northeast Corridor with significant private sector involvement?”

Mica also highlighted Amtrak’s inability to provide true high-speed service or operate with efficiency.

“Amtrak’s plan doesn’t cut it.  Amtrak operates a Soviet-style passenger rail service, with a high rate of subsidization by the taxpayers.  Last year, every single Amtrak ticket was underwritten by $54.48,” Mica said.

Mica said that he and Shuster have proposed letting the private sector compete with Amtrak on its money-losing routes, but this has yet to happen.

“Internationally, the private sector successfully operates passenger rail and can turn a profit.” Mica said.  “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be attracting private sector capital and expertise to operate intercity passenger rail in the United States. In the next surface transportation reauthorization bill, we will ensure that we improve provisions to encourage private sector investment and participation in providing passenger rail service in this country.”

Shuster and Mica concurred on the need for private sector competition to improve passenger rail service.

“This is an issue that is extremely important to me and to Chairman Mica, and that the Chairman and I have worked on for a number of years,” Shuster said.  “I firmly believe that we can make intercity passenger rail more effective and more affordable by partnering with the private sector and by bringing competition to the marketplace.

Shuster continued, “Two and a half years ago, President George W. Bush signed the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, the first rail authorization bill in 11 years.  That bill included important reforms in the operations of Amtrak, America’s intercity passenger railroad. The Act also opened the door for the private sector to participate in providing passenger rail service in a number of important new ways. For the first time, rail capital investment programs were established that give states primary control to improve and expand intercity passenger rail services.

“A pilot program was authorized to allow private sector entities to operate current Amtrak intercity routes, in much the same way that private sector companies now compete with Amtrak to provide commuter rail service.

“While we required the Federal Railroad Administration to develop a rule to implement the pilot program within one year of PRIIA’s enactment, FRA has yet to act.  I am disappointed by the delay in implementing this important provision and have raised my concerns to the FRA on numerous occasions.

“The Section 502 program established a public-private partnership opportunity for high-speed rail development. Under this program, FRA solicited proposals to finance, design, construct, operate, and maintain high-speed intercity passenger rail systems within one of 11 specified corridors (including the Northeast Corridor).  Over 100 expressions of interest were submitted, and from these FRA received 8 substantive and credible proposals for development of high-speed rail corridor projects.

“This RFP process was kept completely separate from the Department of Transportation’s high-speed and intercity passenger rail grant funds that came through the 2009 Stimulus bill. In my view, this was a big mistake. Private sector participation can leverage federal funds and make projects less expensive, get them built faster, and help keep operating costs down.  I will be looking for ways to encourage private sector participation in passenger rail projects,” Shuster said.