It is harder and harder to find consensus on the simple proposition that passenger rail should play some part in the nation's transportation mix and that the private sector should have as large a role as possible in making that possible. Right now, some of the supposed biggest proponents of passenger rail--in the Federal government--are its most serious adversaries in practice.
Start digging and you find out the problem. Just as public employee unions have helped put state governments in the red, unions in the federally chartered Amtrak corporation are trying to prevent the private sector from bidding on passenger rail service. This, despite the perpetual budget deficits run by Amtrak and the growing despair over publicly invested high-speed rail projects in California and other states.
Most conservatives have come to think of passenger rail as a preposterous boondoggle, while liberals in Washington, DC are intent on a publicly owned system (whatever its costs) and--perversely--on preventing private operators from showing what they can do to turn things around.
President Bush signed a bipartisan 2008 bill to assist states with capital improvements to the rail passenger network. The Amtrak Reform Council, on which I served at the time, promoted private operations as part of a long-term change. At the same time, commuter rail started moving to private sector competition for operations contracts. Today, private companies carry more rail passengers than Government Amtrak. Faced with a federal law that soon will require states to pay for Amtrak's nearly half billion dollar annual total losses on routes less than 750 miles, state governments increasingly are considering private competition on intercity routes in order to replicate the success of the private commuter rail market.
However, real progress on passenger rail--with a heavy private component--was stopped by the Obama Administration's fantastic and unrealistic scheme to blanket America with high-speed rail. Ten and a half billion dollars meanwhile was lobbed at primarily low speed political pork barrel projects on Amtrak operated routes. All of this constituted the kind of outlandish waste that incited the Tea Party two years ago. The resulting political backlash caused governors to kill programs in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida. The dream dissolved when the US House voted to cut off funding for high-speed projects and partially funded projects elsewhere began to fail.
In blow to blow to more realistic plans for passenger rail growth, Amtrak's friends in the Senate, Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), without notice or hearings, inserted two items into a Senate bill that will add unneeded federal bureaucracy, impose costly regulation and punish the private businesses that already provide passenger rail service in the United States and want to provide more. The objective is to establish a Government Amtrak monopoly. Senate Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) refused to permit a vote on an amendment by Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) to strip these provisions, or even debate them.
One of these incredible provisions authorizes the US Secretary of Transportation to bill private companies to recover federal investment in railroad infrastructure. This law would force states into an anti-competitive, sole-source agreement with Amtrak, who is exempt from such punishment. No other mode of transportation, be it highways, airports or waterways, favors one carrier over another in such a fashion.
Another provision seizes control of passenger rail operations from state and local decision makers and turns it over to the President's politically appointed, three person Surface Transportation Board (STB). With massive new regulatory authority, the STB would have carte blanch to deny private operators licenses for any reason and effectively force states to use Amtrak. We have already seen how the President's National Labor Relations Board has used such open-ended power to side with labor unions (and campaign donors) against private businesses like Boeing.
The States for Passenger Rail Coalition, composed of the 34 states that provide passenger rail, is chaired by Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond. A diplomatic but vigorous coalition letter to Congress signed by Hammond opposes the Senate's anti-competitive provisions. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA), as well as the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), join them. The states of Washington and Oregon have injected over $1 billion of their own funds into the Cascades route operated by Amtrak and should have a say in managing the route.
Whether the obnoxious, anti-business provisions become law is now up to the House-Senate Conference that is tasked with reconciling the two chambers' bills before the result is sent off to the President's desk for signature. House Transportation Chair John Mica (R-FL) has made his unhappiness over these provisions known, but his influence may not suffice.
One thing is clear, though. Unless competition is allowed, passenger rail service will continue along its self-defeating, dreary tracks to the socialist junkyard. Good riddance, say many. Better our corpse than a live private carrier, says the Amtrak lobby. But who will speak up for existing and potential citizens who desire sustainable, modern passenger rail?