House Will Examine Amtrak’s Progress on Implementing Strategic Plan

Disputes about Amtrak federal funding will continue in 2013. Image – Amtrak over the Kalamazoo River in New Richmond, MI – Jim Thias Flickr

Amtrak’s implementation of a long-range strategic plan will be reviewed by the House Transportation Committee this Wednesday (11/28). The hearing is part of a series the Committee has held to examine and highlight the nearly $1+ billion federal subsidy for Amtrak.

Wednesday’s hearing is titled “Getting Back on Track: A Review of Amtrak’s Structural Reorganization,” and will be webcast live at 10am (ET).  The hearing was originally to be held before Thanksgiving, and was titled “Update on the High Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Program: Mistakes Made and Lessons Learned.”

The briefing memo (1.7mb pdf) prepared for Committee Members and staff provides background on the issue.  In October 2005 the GAO found that Amtrak had no strategic plan, and therefore a lack of “measurable corporate-wide goals, strategies, and outcomes to guide the entire organization.” Amtrak subsequently began a strategic planning process which is expected to be fully implemented in the Fall of 2013.

It is an interesting time for such a hearing, coming on the heels of what could be record Amtrak ridership. Amtrak proponents typically use Amtrak’s steadily increasing ridership to counter calls to reduce or end Amtrak’s subsidy.

Amtrak supporters think they might have it easier in the next Congress since President Obama is reelected, the Democratic hold on the Senate is strengthened, and their chief nemesis Rep. Mica is not returning as House Transportation chairman.

But little will change from this Congress, and the current stalemate is likely to continue. The likely new chairman, Bill Shuster, is no Amtrak fan. One of Amtrak’s primary Republican supporters, Rep. Steve LaTourette, is retiring, as are other Republicans who supported Amtrak. There are still powerful Amtrak allies in Congress, particularly in the Senate. And of course the White House can be expected to fight hard to maintain Amtrak funding. So over the next two years we’re likely to see more House hearings focusing on Amtrak’s shortcomings and proposals to reduce Amtrak funding. The Senate will hold hearings focused on Amtrak’s achievements, and stop any proposals to reduce funding.

Amtrak carried a record 31.2 million passengers in the fiscal year that ended in September, and fare collections paid for a record 79% of operations last year.