High-speed rail getting last minute push in Congress
High-speed rail is getting a last-minute push from lawmakers and lobbyists as Congress debates how to revamp the nation’s infrastructure.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last week advanced a $547 billion infrastructure bill that would provide $25 billion for high-speed rail projects. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee followed on Friday by introducing an accompanying bill with funding for similar projects.
But unlike the Senate bill, the House legislation doesn’t allow private rail firms to receive federal funding. That omission has sparked a lobbying campaign by companies aiming to build some of the first high-speed railways in the country.
Companies, unions and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are now rallying behind an amendment from Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) that would allow private firms to receive federal grants when partnering with state or local governments on high-speed rail.
The measure could free up significant funding for Brightline, the only operational private passenger railroad in the country. The company is building a high-speed railway connecting Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
“High-speed rail connecting Las Vegas to Southern California would reduce traffic, decrease air pollution, and boost Southern Nevada’s economy,” Titus told The Hill. “With the Brightline West project, we have a unique opportunity to demonstrate that high-speed rail can work in this country.”
Titus said she would work with House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) to incorporate provisions from her measure in a manager’s amendment before the bill goes to the House floor.
The effort comes more than two months after President Biden released his $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan, an infrastructure proposal that calls for $80 billion to expand and improve railways, though industry experts say that money will mostly be spent on updating existing Amtrak lines rather than building new high-speed rail projects.
While large parts of Europe and Asia are covered by high-speed rail lines, the U.S. doesn’t have any trains that go fast enough to be considered “high speed.”
A bipartisan group of 10 senators — five Democrats and five Republicans — recently reached an agreement on a framework for a smaller infrastructure proposal than Biden’s, but it’s unclear if high-speed rail would get funding.
Brightline CEO Michael Reininger told reporters last week that his company won’t let infrastructure negotiations go by without “seizing the opportunity” to secure federal funding that would “activate” billions of dollars in private investment for high-speed rail.
“We think this could motivate the private sector to get off the sidelines and get into the game,” Reininger said.
Brightline increased its lobbying spending by 80 percent in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same period last year. The company retains nine lobbyists at three Washington firms, including former Transportation Department aide George Riccardo and former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who backed Brightline’s Florida railway between Miami and West Palm Beach as a lawmaker.
Politicians have stressed the need for private sector involvement following high-profile failures. California’s bullet train connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles was supposed to be running by 2020, but countless delays pushed its start date back to 2029. Last week, the Biden administration confirmed it would restore $929 million in funding for the project that was paused by the Trump administration.
California Treasurer Fiona Ma (D) cited the embattled project in a recent letter to lawmakers urging them to provide an avenue for public-private partnerships on high-speed rail projects.
“To be clear, a repeat effort that spends billions without getting any new lines operational after another decade will be the death of high-speed rail in America,” Ma wrote to lawmakers last week. “There is simply no way the public will continue to support such an agenda without seeing tangible results—and after two hugely expensive bites at the apple, could you really blame them?”
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters also urged lawmakers to make federal grants available for public-private railway projects.
Federal grants would boost other high-speed rail proposals, including Texas Central, which aims to connect Dallas and Houston in less than 90 minutes. The company has nine Washington lobbyists, including Jim Kolb, who was staff director for Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit for seven years.
The federal grant program would be administered by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has said he wants the U.S. to lead the world in high-speed rail. Biden, who as a senator earned the nickname “Amtrak Joe” for his frequent train travel between Washington and his home state of Delaware, has pledged to build a national rail network.
Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), who briefly served as managing director of Texas Central before he ran for Congress, was one of several lawmakers who voiced support for Titus’s amendment during a committee markup last week.
“How do we pay for high-speed rail? This is easy compared to the alternative,” Moulton said. “We don’t just have to use federal dollars, we can use private dollars as well. This amendment makes it possible. And that’s exactly what we need to do.”
Last month, Moulton released a plan to spend $205 billion on a national high-speed rail network, a proposal industry experts don’t expect to gain traction in Washington.
Moulton is one of 23 lawmakers who called on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to fund a $105 billion high-speed rail system stretching from New York City to Boston. Backers of the North Atlantic Rail proposal hired lobbyists for the first time in April in a push for infrastructure funding.
Lawmakers didn’t include funding for the North Atlantic Rail plan in the transportation bill that advanced through committee last week, so its supporters will now look to secure funding in the manager’s amendment. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said she wants to bring the transportation bill to the House floor before July 4.