Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee took a rail trip last week to New York City to discuss the future of Amtrak--namely its importance to the Northeast Corridor and by implication, its lack of importance to the rest of the country.
Amtrak dominates the travel market in the Northeast, and it also makes money there. The rail system captures 76 percent of the rail and air traffic up and down the East Coast. It lags far behind in the rest of the country.
A passenger rail bill that deals mostly with Amtrak is a major priority for the committee this year. Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., along with his predecessor Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., has tried for years to get more private-sector investment in the government-subsidized rail system. Shuster wants to invite private-sector companies to bid on various operations of the system--from rail-car maintenance to ticket sales.
The efforts have generally met with protest from unions and some Democrats.
Shuster said at the field hearing Friday that the Northeast Corridor "is exactly the kind of existing infrastructure we can improve upon through smart investment, and we will see tangible benefits." Other items on rail lovers' wish lists, like high-speed rail, or extended Amtrak operations throughout the country, are beyond the budget this year, he said.
But Shuster doesn't agree with his GOP colleagues who want to completely privatize Amtrak. "Amtrak is not going away.... We're not at the point when we're going to have two competing lines," he said in a National Journal interview in April.
Longer Amtrak routes, say between New Orleans and San Diego, are money losers, but transit advocates say the entire country should still have access to rail options. Shuster doesn't buy that argument. "On these longer routes that a lot of these people are going on, they're tourism trains," he said in April. "The focus should really be the Northeast Corridor. Let's figure out how we can make it even more profitable, because I believe we can. And then maybe it can help some of the other routes."
What is the future of Amtrak? Does it make sense to focus limited resources on the Northeast Corridor for now? How can Amtrak be improved? How can private contractors make their way in to the heavily subsidized system? Would passengers see a difference with more private-sector investment? Would taxpayers see a difference? And what about the rest of the country?