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CQToday—GOP Critics of Amtrak Seize on New Report Questioning Efficiency of Service

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[By Nathan Hurst, CQToday]

Private companies are doing a better job than Amtrak at cutting costs on regional rail transit service, according to a new House committee staff report that Republicans are citing to bolster arguments for a larger private sector role in operating passenger rail services.

Agencies running state-supported commuter rail operations around the country have saved more than $100 million annually after replacing Amtrak with operators selected through competitive bidding, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee staff reported.

If the 19 states that continue to contract with Amtrak were to seek bids on their remaining 27 state-supported routes, they could save an estimated $91.3 million, the staff report said.

The savings, according to the staff report, would go a long way toward covering an expected $120 million decrease in federal subsidies for state-sponsored passenger services by next year.

Amtrak critics, such as committee Chairman John L. Mica, R-Fla., said the national passenger rail service has a “monopoly mentality” that prevents it from winning competitive bids against private operators for the commuter routes. Mica said Amtrak should “get back to a core mission.”

‘You’re Not Allowing Us to Compete’

Amtrak chief executive Joseph H. Boardman accused Republican critics of denying investments that would allow the railroad to be more competitive and profitable.

“You’re not allowing us to compete,” Boardman said. “You want us to act more like a business, but then you’re not allowing us to actually do that.”

Earlier this week, the railroad announced it was on track to best the 30.2 million passenger record set in fiscal 2011. Ridership was up 3.4 percent over last year through the first 11 months of the year, with increases also projected for September. Despite the surge in ridership, Amtrak continues to lose money.

Under Boardman, Amtrak has laid out an ambitious $100 billion-plus plan to bring high-speed service to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, including a proposed $7 billion makeover of Washington’s Union Station.

Mica and other House Republicans have made it clear Amtrak shouldn’t expect a blank check for its improvement plans when the committee takes up passenger rail authorization legislation in the next Congress. Passenger rail advocates say investment in the system will be critical to its future.

Ed Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, said he doesn’t understand the House panel’s antagonism toward Amtrak.

“We all know ridership is soaring . . . that investments are paying off,” Wytkind said. “We’re puzzled by the odd rhetoric coming from the committee.”