Washington — The House of Representatives on Wednesday approved a bill that would authorize the spending of billions of dollars to shore up Amtrak and require the passenger rail company to study the feasibility of a high-speed service from Washington, D.C., to Boston that would make no stops in Connecticut.
The bill was supported by all House Democrats, including all members of Connecticut’s delegation, and more than half of the House’s Republicans, and was approved on a vote of 316-101.
It included an amendment sponsored by Rep. John Mica, R.-Fla, that would require Amtrak to study the feasibility of a new, non-stop, high-speed service from Washington to New York and New York to Boston.
The prospect of a high-speed service that would not stop in Connecticut drew a sharp response Wednesday from the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
“Governor Malloy will stand firm against any high-speed rail project that goes through Connecticut, but doesn’t stop in Connecticut,” said Malloy spokesman Devon Puglia. “That plan would be dead on arrival. The notion that a high-speed train would somehow go through our state, without stopping in our state, is, very simply, not happening.”
In an interview after the vote, Mica said he’s open to changing his plan to include one stop, possibly in Connecticut.
“Maybe they can work with me on that,” he said of Connecticut officials.
The Passenger Rail Reform and Reinvestment Act would require Amtrak to study the estimated trip time, ridership, revenue, total cost, capacity, “and other metrics” for the new high-speed service, as well as its impact on existing Amtrak and commuter rail services and on the Northeast Corridor infrastructure.
Amtrak would have six months to finish the study and the rail company’s Board of Directors would have 90 days to consider implementing the service.
The legislation did not suggest a specific route for the new service.
In defending his amendment on the House floor Wednesday, Mica mentioned a report in his hands that he co-authored in 2010 titled “Sitting on our Assets.” The report cited a University of Pennsylvania proposal to build 450 miles of designated high-speed track between Washington and Boston.
The University of Pennsylvania plan proposed a route that would traverse Long Island from New York City to a 19-mile tunnel under Long Island Sound. The tunnel would terminate in New Haven, and the line would then go north to Hartford and through northeastern Connecticut to Worcester and Boston
But Mica said that is just one proposal of many he expects to surface. He also said the Amtrak study is likely to assess other routes and the feasibility of using existing routes, or adding new track on existing rights of way.
“This could be done several ways,” he said. “We’re just at the beginning of the process.”
On the House floor Wednesday, Mica said a high-speed service is needed to “change Amtrak from a Third World service” and a “Soviet-style operation.”
Mica has long been a critic of Amtrak and the speed of its trains, even the Acela, which he says averages only 68 miles-per-hour between New York and Boston. Mica has said a high-speed train should average at least 110 miles-per-hour.
Mica’s amendment was supported by Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., who said, “I think this (study) might help us.”
Rep. Bill Schuster, R-Pa., chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that crafted the Amtrak bill, said, “This study can have positive impacts.”
Attempt to end Amtrak subsidy
The new Amtrak bill would authorize nearly $8 billion for Amtrak over the next five years and set up a new system to safeguard revenues from the Northeast corridor, which are often raided to shore up other routes.
The bill provides about $982 million per year for Amtrak’s national network and another $470 million annually for its popular Northeast routes that include service to Connecticut.
Amtrak has historically received about $1 billion per year from the federal government for operations and construction projects. The Senate has not yet started work on an Amtrak authorization bill.
The House legislation would also allow commuter railroads, including Metro-North, to be eligible for low-interest federal loans to install accident-avoidance technology and safety improvements at grade-crossings.
“This is truly a reform bill,” Shuster said.
But fellow Republican Ron McClintock of California tried to amend the bill to end Amtrak’s federal subsidy. He said the federal government subsidizes an average of $45 of every ticket Amtrak sells.
“Despite endless promises, things are not getting better,” McClintock said.
His amendment was defeated on a vote of 184-232.
The railroad bill also authorizes Amtrak to conduct a pilot program that would allow dogs and cats on “specifically designated rail cars.”
“The animal must be in a kennel sized in accordance to Amtrak’s requirements for carry-on baggage,” the bill says. “The passenger will pay a fee that, in the aggregate, covers the full costs of the pilot program.”
Supported by the Illinois state government, Amtrak inaugurated a pet service on two routes in the state last year.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the trains carried 145 pets last year “without a single complaint.”