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Congressional Republicans look to privatize Amtrak's Northeast Corridor

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A Republican idea in Congress would change passenger rail service in the U.S. in the name of developing high speed rail. It would start with the 400-plus mile northeast corridor that includes the Adirondack route, which makes stops in Plattsburgh and Rouses point.

The line passes through some of the most congested cities in America, it's the most traveled passenger rail route in America and it's owned and operated by Amtrak.

Republican John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, and other proponents of the plan would put the Northeast corridor up for bid by private-sector developers.

Washington DC Correspondent Ryan Morden has the details:

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Amtrak is a quasi-private organization — vitally dependent on heavy government subsidies. House Republicans said they want to transfer the line to the Department of Transportation, then off the government books all together.

”We would take offers from the private sector to control and operate the infrastructure and operate the train sets. We’re looking at combinations of whatever would be most beneficial to the tax payer,” Mica said at a recent transportation hearing. According to him, private investors could help jump start true high-speed rail in that corridor.

”And unfortunately that is not truly high-speed," Mica said. By federal definition, a route can be designated as high-speed if the train runs at an average of 110 mph.

Amtrak laid out a proposal to make trains run up to 220 mph between New York and Washington D-C. The plan would take 30 years and $117 billion. Mica said this can be done faster and cheaper under private investment, and said the only thing standing in the way is “Amtrak, the federal government or Congress.”

Another Republican on the transportation committee, Richard Hanna, said he shares Mica’s unfavorable view of Amtrak. ”I kind of agree with him, it looks like a system that is not well run, not that efficient," Hanna said. "I applaud them for what they do, but we believe it can be done a lot better."

Hanna, who represents Utica, said he doesn’t support high speed rail along upstate’s Empire Corridor and called it impractical. Hanna said offering up the Northeast Corridor to private operators is a good idea, and called the rail line a place where high speed rail is practical.

"I do like the idea. I think it’s appropriate to push for high-speed rail along the northeast corridor. Certainly other countries, other industrialized countries have done that. We are the only one without some form of high speed rail. Congestion is growing in aviation, and it’s growing on the roads," Hanna said. "This is a great way to relieve some of that pressure as we grow as a population.”

Edward Wytkind, representing AFL-CIO, said his labor organization opposes the idea, saying when you remove Amtrak’s best performing route, it dooms the rest of that national rail network.

"Amtrak set ridership records 7 of the last 8 years and it's performing better than at any time in it's history," Wytkind said. "The NEC service is booming, and I won’t let any of the privatizers carrying their biased and incomplete analyses of what true costs are pretend otherwise, simply because they can’t get their head around the idea that a government supported entity can succeed.”

Some on the transportation committee said they are concerned that the privatization proposal will be included with the big surface transportation spending plan due out soon that focuses mainly on highways. If that happens, one democrat called the plan dead on arrival.

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