Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

House spices up Amtrak reauthorization proposal with HSR and.. hints of privatization?

Pat mentioned H.R. 6003 while discussing Representative Boozman’s shifting rail policy, but this year’s Amtrak reauthorization bill is deserving of discussion in its own right. On the positive side, it retains many of the positive aspects of its companion Senate bill passed overwhelmingly last fall: it increases Amtrak’s funding and removes the ridiculous self-sufficiency requirement stipulated in earlier years.

However, the legislation diverges from its earlier counterpart in its emphasis on high speed rail. While this is a refreshing development, the bill sidesteps Amtrak in its sections pertaining to HSR, instead outlining  grants for state rail projects and allowing for private HSR proposals along existing corridors.

Critics have, probably rightfully, called foul on this move, including unions and Amtrak chief Alex Kummant. Kummant points out that the 2 hour New York to DC objective that the government would seek private bids on isn’t that much of an improvement over the 2.5 hours offered by Amtrak’s current lines. He has a good quote about instead expanding NEC-style infrastructure to the rest of the country (where lower densities would make HSR building less expensive):

“Could we go south to Atlanta (from Washington)?… Could we develop a dozen 110-mile-an-hour corridors and, by the way, with the pocket change left over, rebuild every station, create parking, intermodal bus connections, transit connections?”

I’m inclined to agree with Kummant’s point. Amtrak is a national service, and the government needs to realize that the rest of the country deserves to have fast rail transportation every bit as much as the Northeast does. However, it’s important to note that the bill only requires the government to take these private bids. Further action would require more molasses-quick action from Congress.

Furthermore, there’s nothing all that radical about freeing up proposals for state HSR initiatives. As any regular reader of this blog could tell you, they’re happening anyway. The important thing is to get them built, and for legislators to realize how, even with these new projects,  the US lags terribly behind other industrialized countries in terms of high speed rail. The rhetoric around this bill would seem to at least indicate that it’s dawning on them.

So in the end, the passage of this bill would be a win for passenger rail. Not because of the tentative privatization openings, but because of increased funding for both Amtrak and separate HSR projects. We can hope that it signals more [positive] legislative attention for our rail network. But then, it will have to get across our famous rail-advocate president’s desk first.

More info on H.R. 6003: 1, 2, 3
More info on S. 294: 1

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy, United States High Speed Rail, , , , ,

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May 2008