House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., last week came up with a pretty cool way to unveil an idea that he has been tossing around for some time. His policy proposal, which comes as no surprise, is to separate Amtrak from the Northeast Corridor and open the heavily trafficked route up to private competition. The public rollout of the proposal was unique--part town hall, part press conference--a Webcast and teleconference operated out of the committee room in front of a live audience.
Mica's bill would create a competition for high-speed and intercity passenger-rail service and infrastructure contracts, to be run out of the Department of Transportation. It is designed to lower the proportion of taxpayer subsidies that goes toward rail, but it is really a direct repudiation of Amtrak. Mica has been highly critical of Amtrak for years, arguing that it is costly and discourages private investment.
The privatization plan was immediately criticized by Amtrak and others who say it would destroy passenger rail. This proposal has been suggested before and it doesn't work, the critics said. But Mica, who is unusual among Republicans for actually liking rail, says it is high time other companies got in on the passenger-rail game; if they can do it better, and cheaper, why shouldn't they be given the chance?
With government budgets strained to their breaking points, does Mica's proposal make sense now, even if it hasn't in the past? Are there areas where public-private partnerships legitimately can shift the burden away from taxpayers to provide passenger rail? Have private-sector companies been shut out of the passenger-rail business as a result of Amtrak? Are there elements of Mica's plan that can be put into place separating Amtrak from the Northeast Corridor?