Rail advocates say infrastructure bill falls short
Rail advocates say that while transportation provisions in the Senate-passed infrastructure bill are an important first step, far more is needed to address both carbon emissions and gaps in public transit.
The bipartisan bill passed Tuesday includes $66 billion for intercity rail transportation, which the White House has touted as “the largest federal investment in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak,” as well as $39 billion for public transit in general.
The majority of the rail funds will go to Amtrak, instead of building out high-speed rail, a major wish-list item for climate and rail proponents.
“This is a large amount, even compared to what advocates have been looking for. But the funding does not necessarily seem oriented toward addressing climate change,” said Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute.
“For example, while electrification of the transportation system must be a key component of any effort to counter climate change, there is no specific money in this legislation for electrifying the intercity rail network,” Freemark added.
Under the provisions of the bipartisan package, most trains will continue to rely on diesel fuel.
While there is some funding for expanding intercity rail corridors, Freemark said, the amount allocated would be insufficient to build out a high-speed rail system akin to those in Europe and Asia.
“We will not be getting China’s 25,000-mile high-speed rail network anytime soon,” he added.
Freemark estimates that the Northeast Corridor needs at least $117 billion in upgrades, and that the line from Los Angeles to San Francisco needs at least $50 billion.
Andy Kunz, president of the US High Speed Rail Association, said his organization has been “pushing for a higher number … because how many years do you want to play around with this?”
“When you look at what China’s doing, they’ve been spending $120 billion every year on all-new high-speed rail, year after year, for 14 years straight,” he said. “That’s how you get an all-new transportation system. We’re not doing that; we’re still talking about double-digit numbers or smaller.”
A proposal by the US High Speed Rail Association calls for 15 high-speed rail projects in the U.S. at an estimated total cost of $360.5 billion.
The sentiment that the Senate bill does not go far enough on transportation can also be found among some House Democrats.
House Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) is among those who argue the Senate bill falls flat. A House-passed transportation measure championed by DeFazio would increase Amtrak funding to $32B and have a $30B high-speed rail grant program.
A spokesperson for DeFazio, however, told The Hill that the congressman is not pushing for specific dollar amounts on transportation in the Senate-passed measure.
The House will soon receive both the $1 trillion bipartisan package and $3.5 trillion budget resolution from the Senate.
Advocates have argued that rail expansion is particularly important to reducing carbon emissions and providing alternatives to fossil fuel transportation.
“Rail, especially electrified rail, is the most sustainable motorized transportation mode in terms of its carbon emissions,” Freemark said. “Rail services also encourage compact, pedestrian-oriented development surrounding stations, which is also an effective counter to climate change.”
Kunz added that expanding rail is “one of the few things we can do that will take a big bite out of emissions.”
“Dollar for dollar, the same money you’d spend on high-speed rail will have probably 100 times the effect of reducing carbon than if you’d spent that money on electric cars.”
Whatever positive effects Amtrak upgrades have, he added, would not be comparable to that of expanded high-speed rail.
“When you open a 200-mile-an-hour high-speed rail, it literally takes about 50 percent of the travelers right out of airplanes and they move over to high-speed rail,” Kunz said, reducing a major source of emissions.
He pointed to Amtrak’s Acela train, which is not high-speed rail but has significantly cut into air travel’s market share in the Northeast corridor it covers.
President Biden, who was nicknamed “Amtrak Joe” for regularly commuting to Washington by train from Delaware during his Senate career, has played up the record funding levels in the bipartisan deal.
Expanded high-speed rail would also cut down on the carbon emissions associated with shipping, Kunz argued.
Comparatively, he said, “when you invest in electric cars, it doesn’t do anything for aviation, it doesn’t do anything for trucking, and it barely does anything for cars unless we’re suddenly going to get 100 million electric cars on the road.”