John Robert Smith is familiar face in transportation reform circles. The former Republican mayor of the town of Meridian, Mississippi, he now leads two of the most significant advocacy organizations in the field, Transportation for America and Reconnecting America. He also happens to be a former chair of Amtrak’s board of directors. All of those qualifications made him a natural choice to testify as a witness at this House Transportation Committee hearing.
Smith’s three main points were:
(1) a national passenger rail system has significant economic value;
(2) maximizing the system’s value requires increased, stable, and dedicated federal funding; and
(3) station area development is a promising area for utilizing innovative financing mechanisms.
Representative John Mica (R-FL), former committee chair and strong proponent of privatizing started off by asking Smith if he was aware that the federal debt was $16 trillion, or that funding had been cut for troops to receive hot meals.
“But you’re aware that we subsidized every ticket on Amtrak over $40, including these long-distance tickets, some of them more than $400,” Mica continued, “and we can’t cut back, sir?”
Smith valiantly managed to get out, over Mica’s loud interruptions, that “every transportation system in this country” gets subsidies, “whether that’s highway, aviation, transit or rail,” and that no passenger rail system in the world pays for itself out of the farebox.
Mica railed against Amtrak’s “Soviet-style operations” and the money losses on food service aboard the trains and asked Smith if he should “go back and tell that mother of the soldier not getting hot breakfasts.
John Robert Smith firmly replied: “That’s a false choice, Congressman.”
Additional revenues would solve all these problems, but that’s something Mica and others in his party refuse to acknowledge.
Smith added one more thing at the end:
“Let me just say, on the subject of the long-distance trains, that when my senator, Trent Lott, got to see the Mississippians, and saw that system was vitally important to them — the retired couples who use that system to visit their dispersed families across the country, the single mothers with children for whom the only the way they could visit their grandparents affordably was through the use of that train, the disabled vets that were on board that train — when he saw the Mississippians impacted and affected, he saw the importance of that facility.”
“TCU is pleased to see testimony before the Committee that tells the truth about the needs of passenger rail in this country. Amtrak needs a stable, dedicated, long-term funding source and it will become a world class High-Speed rail system,” said TCU President Bob Scardelletti.
Click here to view the video of this testimony.