Lawmakers Butt Heads In High-Speed Rail Debate
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The debate over high-speed rail is picking up speed in Washington. And at the center of that debate is Amtrak. The heavily populated Northeast Corridor, from Washington to Boston, is the only segment of Amtrak's national service that is profitable. And the company, which depends in large part on federal dollars, is exploring options to build a high-speed line along the corridor.
But as NPR's Brian Naylor reports, a key Republican in Congress is trying to get the government out of the railroad business.
BRIAN NAYLOR: For most Republicans in Congress, Amtrak is viewed as little more than a massive drain of federal dollars. The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Florida Republican John Mica, doesn't mince words about his feelings.
JOHN MICA: We're celebrating the 40th anniversary of Amtrak, which has a history of a Soviet-style train operation.
NAYLOR: Amtrak has received billions of dollars in subsidies since it was formed by Congress in 1970. But as anyone who is taking its trains in recent days between New York and Philadelphia knows its infrastructure is creaky, its lines are congested, and delays are all too frequent. Its defenders point out the gleaming high-speed rail networks in Europe and Asia are heavily subsidized too. One thing both sides agree on, if true high-speed rail is to gain a foothold in the U.S., it will begin in the Northeast Corridor. That's where Amtrak runs its Acela trains, the only service approaching high-speed rail in the U.S.
(SOUNDBITE OF AMTRAK AD)
Unidentified Man: Amtrak is providing transportation alternatives for 21st century America.
NAYLOR: Amtrak has a vision for new high-speed trains zooming at speeds of up to 220 miles per hour up and down the Eastern Seaboard. To pay for that vision, Amtrak is looking for outside help, quite a lot of it. It estimates that it will cost some $117 billion and take up to 30 years to build. That's right, 30 years. Joe Boardman is Amtrak's president and CEO.
JOE BOARDMAN: They didn't do the interstate highway system tomorrow or next year or even in five. How many years did it take to finish that out?
NAYLOR: It's unclear who might invest in Amtrak. Several European companies have shown interest in building high-speed systems in the U.S. Boardman says one thing Amtrak has to offer in return is the real estate along the rail lines it owns.
BOARDMAN: I'm not a developer. I offer railroad. We know that's our core business. But private investors won't be just interested in us when this is done. They'll be interested in a lot of the things that happen around the railroad.
NAYLOR: While Amtrak chases private investors, the Republican-controlled House will soon weigh whether to take that property and the train service away from Amtrak and sell it to a private corporation. Mica and Pennsylvania Republican Bill Shuster are the sponsors. Shuster compares it to the deregulation of other transportation industry.
BILL SHUSTER: And that's what we're doing here, I believe. We're deregulating passenger rail in this country, just like we deregulated the freight rails, just like we deregulated the trucking industry in this country, just like we deregulated the airline industry.
NAYLOR: Opponents of the plan include, not surprisingly, Amtrak and its labor unions, who say it will abrogate contract agreements and retirement benefits of some 20,000 Amtrak employees. Congressional Democrats are opposed too. They say it will mean an end to rail service in many states outside the Northeast to mid-Atlantic, which is subsidized by the Northeast Corridor service. West Virginia Democrat Nick Rahall.
NICK RAHALL: Frankly, I'm not sure that the proposal can even be fixed. My fear is that if it is enacted, it will result in a transcontinental tragedy.
NAYLOR: But Mica have asked to press forward with privatization and says, if it's not approved in this Congress, it or something similar will be in the future.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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