Think tank urges lawmakers not to privatize Amtrak

The Economic Policy Institute is calling on Congress to renew the federal commitment to Amtrak and urging lawmakers to avoid the temptation of privatizing the rail system, a proposal that has gained traction among some budget hawks and conservatives.

The report comes as the Senate Commerce Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Subcommittee is scheduled Thursday to hold a hearing on options for funding Amtrak, including privatization.

In a report sent to committee members Wednesday, the Economic Policy Institute laid out a number of key economic, security and environmental arguments against privatizing Amtrak. For instance, the institute noted that passenger trains are 125 percent more energy efficient than airplanes, 278 percent more efficient than cars and 94 percent more than buses.

EPI also argued that claims that Amtrak is a drain on the federal budget are exaggerated, pointing out that, since 1971, Amtrak has received $21 billion in federal money, while in 1999 alone the Transportation Department spent $23.6 billion on highway projects.

EPI argued that Congress should instead embark on a new spending effort to modernize the national passenger rail system, which it said would greatly increase the efficiency of Amtrak. For instance, the group noted that although Amtrak has begun use of high-speed Acela trains, they are unable to run at top speed because of aging track beds badly in need of upgrading.

The perennial debate over the future of federal involvement in Amtrak has continued this year, although there is growing concern amongst some union and Amtrak officials that conservative calls for privatization have gained significant traction, particularly among fiscal hawks like Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz.