Hill’s Amtrak antagonism still on the long haul

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Passengers board an Amtrak train from Penn Station Oct. 28 in New York. | AP Photo

Amtrak’s century-old tunnels under New York City survived Hurricane Sandy. The next big challenge facing the railroad: two more years of a Republican-controlled House.

Created in 1970 to maintain a money-losing nationwide passenger rail service, Amtrak has become a favorite whipping boy in Washington as an example of government inefficiency ripe for the private sector. It’s a case of bad déjà vu for Hill denizens who remember bankruptcy-bound private passenger railroads screaming for federal support 40 years ago.

“We know how we got Amtrak. The private sector threw it at us,” said Democratic Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents Washington, where Amtrak is headquartered. “Yet we’ve been having hearings about how the private sector could take over.”

The force behind the hearings is Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), who continues to put the railroad in the spotlight. There were three separate hearings in the months leading up to the October recess, and Mica has promised three more in the lame-duck session. But attacking the popular service has riled up Democrats, who have come to the hearings to defend the railroad and even questioned Mica’s motives. The infighting and questions about the service’s future are bound to persist into the next Congress.

Through it all, Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman is quick to note the railroad’s history, telling POLITICO that “the expectation always was we took the burden of moving passengers off the freight railroads that were losing money. They were losing money on food service. They were losing money on passenger service. They were losing money all the way around.”

The hurricane that lashed the East Coast two weeks ago crippled passenger rail service into and out of New York, shining the national spotlight on a transportation recovery effort of unprecedented speed and scope. The repair costs for the damage are still being sorted out, but if Amtrak turns to Congress for help with repairs, its first point of contact will be Mica.

Mica has grilled Boardman on hamburger prices, even taking to a Capitol Hill McDonald’s to highlight the railroad’s money-losing food service. A hearing was scheduled for Wednesday on “mistakes made and lessons learned” on high-speed rail, but it was postponed because of a busy week of Republican leadership meetings and elections. Further rail and Amtrak hearings have not been ruled out in the lame-duck session.

Amtrak’s greatest success has been on the Northeast Corridor — the busy megalopolis comprising everything from Boston to Washington. Amtrak has eaten at the market share from those two endpoint cities to New York by introducing the profitable Acela Express, the fastest passenger train in the country, recently hitting 165 mph during a test run. The railroad has pitched a $151 billion plan to bring speeds to 220 mph and vastly increase capacity, an ambitious vision that lacks a funding source.

Mica’s Amtrak focus has angered some Democrats, who say the chairman is overly antagonistic and focusing on pittances of waste rather than constructive policymaking. Mica likens his Amtrak leadership to that of a parent’s tough love, but Boardman said Mica’s food hearing was “a stunt” and the focus on hamburger costs — which Boardman admits surprised him — “misuses Amtrak.”

“They accused me of focusing in the weeds, getting in the weeds. $833 million food loss in 10 years is not in the weeds,” Mica said of the hearing.

The hurricane was hard on the railroad, but Amtrak will be boosted by four more years under rail-friendly President Barack Obama and noted Amtrak-loving Vice President Joe Biden. One of Mitt Romney’s most specific proposals was to eliminate all of Amtrak’s $1.5 billion in annual subsidies — an austere route Mica doesn’t embrace.

“If you didn’t have an Amtrak, you would want an Amtrak. Because you have to have someone that would decide how you have connectivity for a national system,” Mica told POLITICO recently. “I want to try to get them out of the operational business because they’re inefficient.

“Some routes can make money and have the potential for good return. However, other routes may have to be subsidized within a reasonable amount. I have no problem with it.”

Even with Republicans keeping control of the House, Mica’s Amtrak offensive is likely to soon end. Democrats expect a softer touch from the next chairman, likely Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), assuming Mica doesn’t get a rare waiver from his term limits.

A rail title was left off the new transportation law, which means Congress is in line to write a stand-alone bill next fall with Shuster in the conductor’s seat.

Multiple Democrats told POLITICO that Shuster’s lineage as son of a former chairman — Bud Shuster — and origins in rail-heavy Pennsylvania will lead to a more sympathetic stance toward Amtrak. Rep. Bill Shuster represents a large state home to some of the country’s richest train-riding traditions.

“I think he’ll be little more sympathetic,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). “Pennsylvania is a state that’s right there. I just think that Shuster would be very reasonable on that.”

Boardman hopes that Shuster will channel his father and take a broad look at the national transportation system before making policy changes. Citing a 1979 report that Bud Shuster led, Boardman said that “one of the things Bill could do here that would set us on a very different path for this next century is to really look at what the national transportation policy should be from the perspective of Congress.” The National Transportation Policy Study Commission report “really developed a comprehensive look at policies. If that is something that Shuster can put together, I think he’s really got something.”

In an interview, Shuster did not tip his hand on how he would oversee the railroad but did admit to the occasional “difference of opinion” with Mica.

“For the most part, we’re coming out of a similar camp. The camp is not cut things. But it’s about reform,” said the railroads subcommittee chairman. “If you want a vibrant passenger rail service in this country, you’ve got to change some things. In Washington, D.C., we put something in place and expect it to be there forever no matter how much it costs.”

Mica’s already hit on Amtrak subsidies, expensive food service and ineffective operations of commuter rail. Shuster has not voiced opposition to any of those conclusions — but he has been more measured than the oft-colorful Mica.

Florida Rep. Corrine Brown, Shuster’s Democratic counterpart on the railroads panel, said Mica “wants to destroy Amtrak.” Brown said she’s spoken to House Republicans on Mica’s committee who have let her know they don’t have the same stance — a sentiment echoed by plainspoken retiring Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio).

“If you’re a Republican from the suburbs of Philadelphia or Chicago or New York, it’s a big deal to people there. The Republican Party isn’t one size fits all when it comes to Amtrak,” LaTourette said.

During a recent interview in the House speaker’s lobby, Brown pulled veteran Democratic lawmakers into a conversation with POLITICO to tout the importance of the railroad. Cummings and New York Democratic Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Charles Rangel praised the railroad’s utility, with Maloney reminiscing how vital train service has proved amid disaster — like Sept. 11, when “no planes were flying; the only way to get around was trains.” Maloney’s comments underscore that in some ways, Amtrak isn’t only a passenger service but also a public utility.

Boardman says the railroad is unique, something that should be taken into consideration when talking about ways it can improve: “I don’t think there is any other animal that I’m aware in the federal government like Amtrak. No other operation runs anything like Amtrak. We’re a hotelier; we’re a food service agency; we’re a travel agency; we’re a train operator; we’re a maintainer of equipment; we’re dispatchers and police officers.”

(Source: politico.com, via pod313)

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