NEW YORK -- Ask Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) what's so great about New York, and he'll tell you it has something to do with the city's railroad system.
Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has referred to Amtrak's Pennsylvania Station as the company's "crown jewel," the nerve center of a crucial transportation system. As he gears up to lead the reauthorization of a rail policy law that expires in the fall, Shuster is aiming to privatize parts of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor in order to make an already profitable operation generate even more money.
While Shuster touts his proposition as an obvious one, his Democratic colleagues and Amtrak's leadership oppose it and will push back when the bill comes up for consideration.
Shuster doesn't appear to be worried. Amtrak loses money on long-service routes, and the company remains operable through federal subsidies that Shuster insists can't just be doled out because of some sort of national duty, and he expects people to agree with him.
So on a rainy morning Friday on the top floor of Moynihan Station, the new name for the old post office across the street from Penn Station that's being converted into a rail hub, he outlined his vision for Amtrak in front of the railroad's president.
Shuster is proposing that the railroad raise ticket prices, temporarily suspend its least popular routes, and work with or allow a private company to compete for business in the Northeast. And while he would welcome trains that travel faster in the Northeast, he doesn't approve of actual high-speed rail on the line because, as he put it, that won't give riders enough time to enjoy their commutes.
Amtrak President Joseph Boardman seemed surprised by Shuster's candor.
"I think Chairman Shuster was more specific today than I've heard him be, and that is of his intent and go out and look at those long-distance trains in a stronger way," Boardman said.
Interest in the Northeast Corridor has spiked this year since the rail policy bill is in play on Capitol Hill. For lawmakers, there is potential for establishing a new financing network and overhauling a corridor that leading experts say is not fully realized despite the high volume of traffic. Amtrak owns and controls 363 miles of the route north of New York City. And despite a slowdown along the Northeast Corridor due to Superstorm Sandy and struggling regional economies, Amtrak's Northeast ridership has increased over the years even with an aging infrastructure.
Earlier this year, Amtrak unveiled the first of 70 new locomotives and upgrades to its wireless Internet service to keep up with consumer demand along the Northeast Corridor and other routes.
At Friday's hearing, Shuster asked the Amtrak chief if he thought his money-losing service in rural America was more important than the railroad's profitable Northeast Corridor.
Boardman, admittedly aiming to be provocative, told the chairman those money-losing routes through New Mexico, Utah and Nevada are of greater importance than Amtrak's service from Boston to Washington, D.C. He then acknowledged that wasn't exactly the case, but he noted that rural lines are immensely important because they connect the entire country along a single rail network.
Not every town has an airport, or a port, or even bus routes affording residents access to travel over long distances. But rail, for the most part, is available, he said. Recent studies have shown a growing number of riders are opting to live or work along transit-centric areas.
"This nation needs to be tied together on the surface of the United States from coast to coast, border to border. We feed a half a million riders each year into the Northeast Corridor," Boardman added.
Shuster, a rural Pennsylvania native who is a recent convert to the Amtrak commute, was not moved by Boardman's answer.
"As you mentioned, you're struggling with financing, and as the head of the organization, it seems to me your priority, your business priority, has to be that which makes you money, to help us ... go towards reform," he told Boardman.
Added Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Denham (R-Calif.): "With years of trillion-dollar deficits, federal resources are scarce, and we must work within existing funding levels and we must find ways to involve the private sector."
While Amtrak posted a nearly 1 percent increase in ridership for the first half of fiscal 2013 over the previous year and in March set an all-time single-month record for riders of the railroad, the fact remains that non-Northeast routes rely on federal subsidies to operate -- a concern for many Republicans in Congress.
Since 2010, Congress has provided Amtrak with more than $4.4 billion in overall funding and capital support. For fiscal 2014, the Obama administration's budget request calls on Congress to consolidate Amtrak and other passenger rail spending into a new transportation trust fund. Amtrak's $2.65 billion fiscal 2014 budget request would include $373 million in federal operating support, $2.065 billion in federal capital support and $212 million for debt service.
But while Republicans continue to express concerns about money-losing routes, most Democrats approve of the government's role in the railroad.
"To discuss that we want to do away with long-distance service is like saying we want to do away with the mail system," said Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), the ranking member of the Railroads Subcommittee. "I mean, basically, we have a lot of people that are not thinking forward, and transportation used to be the engine that put American people to work."
On the road again
The New York field hearing is one of many such events Denham has scheduled around the country to gain input from Amtrak and other stakeholders about the priorities they would like to see addressed in the rail bill.
Last month, Denham led a field hearing in California at which he pledged to block congressional appropriations for his home state's high-speed rail project until project managers produce a business plan that is "fiscally sound and supported by private dollars."
This week, Denham has scheduled round tables in Chicago and Springfield, Ill. A trip to Memphis, Tenn., is expected soon after. Both Shuster and Denham say they are committed to reauthorizing the rail law before it expires.
Schedule: The first House Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee hearing is today, June 10, at 10 a.m. CDT in Room 16503, Thompson Center, 100 West Randolph St., Chicago.
Schedule: The second House Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee hearing is Tuesday, June 11, at 9 a.m. CDT in Room 212, Capitol Building, 301 S. 2nd St., Springfield, Ill.
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