How Biden’s infrastructure push could put rail back on track in the US

How Biden’s infrastructure push could put rail back on track in the US
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April 30th, 2021 | ABC News Radio

(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden campaigned on sparking the “second great railroad revolution” in a car-centric nation where rail infrastructure has languished for decades.

The president famously commuted daily from Wilmington, Delaware, to Washington, D.C., during his time as a senator, logging millions of miles riding the rails and earning the nickname “Amtrak Joe.”

“He’s the first president in decades who’s routinely ridden trains and he understands just how functional they are,” Robert Yaro, the former president of the New York’s Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit civic planning organization, and a professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, told ABC News.

Now that “Amtrak Joe” is in the nation’s highest office and has prioritized revitalizing the country’s crumbling infrastructure — rail advocates see a new opportunity to transform a transportation system in the U.S. that they say is stuck in the past.

“It’s embarrassing, really, when you think about it. We’re supposed to be the richest country in the world and a superpower, and we’ve got a 1930s falling-apart rail system,” Andy Kunz, president and CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, a nonprofit advocacy group, said.

“Biden was, as vice president, a big rail supporter,” Kunz added. “And so now that he’s back in the helm, we have a new opportunity to really push this big.”

Here’s how experts say a Biden presidency and infrastructure push could spark a rail revolution to address the climate crisis, create jobs and keep the U.S. competitive against rising economic behemoths such as China:

‘Once in a generation investment’

Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, dubbed the American Jobs Plan, has earmarked some $80 billion to revive the dilapidated rail system in the U.S. The president has proposed corporate tax hikes to fund the massive project.

The president’s power is ultimately limited in creating new legislation that unlocks trillions of dollars, but Biden said he welcomes debate and tweaks from Congress.

Exact details of where the money will go are still being worked out, but a fact sheet released by the White House on the infrastructure proposal mentions “rail” a dozen times.

“President Biden is calling on Congress to invest $80 billion to address Amtrak’s repair backlog; modernize the high-traffic Northeast Corridor; improve existing corridors and connect new city pairs; and enhance grant and loan programs that support passenger and freight rail safety, efficiency, and electrification,” the White House overview of the plan states.

Asha Weinstein Agrawal, the director of education at San Jose State University’s Mineta Transportation Institute, called Biden’s infrastructure plan a “really ambitious and exciting attempt to take the federal government support of transportation in new directions.”

“If you think back to the 1960s, when the federal government decided to build an interstate system that connects the entire country with standardized, high-quality roads — that was also an enormously ambitious undertaking. The kind of rail that is being proposed now could be almost as ambitious a plan,” she told ABC News.

Robert Puentes, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Eno Center for Transportation, told ABC News that for decades the federal government’s approach to transportation policy “has been in kind of a stasis situation, where nothing has really evolved that much.”

Since the late 1990s, Puentes said there has been a new focus on the environmental impact of car and plane travel as well as the role mass transit plays in connecting often lower-income individuals to jobs and opportunities in big cities with high rents.

“Now, we have the Biden infrastructure plan, which really embraces all of that, and it’s hard to overstate just how different what they proposed is from the way federal transportation policy has been for the last 35 years or so,” Puentes said.

Bill Flynn, the CEO of Amtrak, lauded the infrastructure plan in a statement shortly after it was unveiled, calling it “what this nation has been waiting for.” Flynn went on to note that most of the Northeast Corridor’s tunnels and bridges “are over a century old” and must be replaced imminently.

The quasi-public corporation has said that it needs some $38 billion just to repair the existing infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak’s busiest route that traverses major cities from Washington, D.C., to Boston.

While Biden’s current infrastructure proposal specifically allocates that funds need to go towards Amtrak’s repair backlog, transportation policy experts note that this leaves some $42 billion for other rail projects — including the possibility of investing in high-speed rail in the U.S.

While “high-speed rail” wasn’t mentioned by name in the plans released by the White House, Biden’s transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a recent MSNBC interview that he wants the U.S. “to be leading the world when it comes to access to high-speed rail.”

Currently, the U.S. is near the bottom compared to the developed world when it comes to access to high-speed rail, transportation experts interviewed by ABC News said.

Meeting ‘the great challenges of our time’

Yaro is on the steering committee of the North Atlantic Rail, a proposed high-speed rail route that aims to connect much of New England as well as enable 100-minute rail service between New York City and Boston. Currently, that rail trip can take between three-and-a-half to five hours, according to Amtrak timetables.

In 2010, Yaro said he and a team were invited to present a precursor of their current plans to then-Vice President Biden, who had already established his reputation as a rail enthusiast. The original markup had plans to connect New York City to Washington, D.C., in 90 minutes.

“We were in the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing and we presented it to the vice president and a bunch of luminaries, the federal railroad administrator and others,” Yaro recalled. “And the vice president, about 10 minutes after the presentation, pounded it on the table said ‘I have been waiting for this for 30 years, let’s do it.’”

Yaro said after a lengthy bureaucratic process and a new administration, the original proposal eventually “landed with a dull thud in the Trump White House.”

Now, he hopes a Biden administration can revive at least parts of it.

“This is the northern half of that proposal, the piece from New York City to Boston,” he said.

The U.S. has fallen far behind the rest of the developed world when it comes to high-speed rail. Japan first unveiled its Shinkansen bullet train more than 50 years ago in 1964, and by the 1980s, high-speed rail had spread throughout Europe. More recently, China has constructed the world’s longest network of high-speed rail in just the past 15 years.

Japan’s Shinkansen and France’s Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV) boast speeds of nearly 200 mph. China has said its high-speed trains can run at up to 220 mph.

The closest operational U.S. comparison — Amtrak’s Acela Express train, which runs from Boston to Washington, D.C. — can reach speeds of up to 150 mph, though its average speed is a fraction of that based on its own timetables.

As most airports in major cities are often far from their downtown areas, Kunz noted that it can typically take an hour or more of additional travel time after flying just to get into the city. Meanwhile, rail service “actually takes you right into the cities,” Kunz said.

Cost and politics have impeded the production of high-speed rail in the U.S., Yaro said. The North Atlantic Rail proposal alone has a price tag of some $105 billion, and he hopes the president’s plan will help “as a down payment.”

While some may gawk at the cost, Yaro said he would argue that it’s something “we have to do if we’re going to compete successfully with China.”

Just this month, China reported record-high economic growth of 18% in the first quarter of 2021, while the U.S. was still reeling from the pandemic-induced economic downturn.

“This means that their economy is probably already larger than ours or will be larger than ours in the next year or so,” Yaro said, noting that if this occurs, it would mark the first time in some 150 years that the U.S. hasn’t had the largest economy in the world.

The White House’s summary of Biden’s infrastructure proposal lays this out as an objective, stating: “Like great projects of the past, the President’s plan will unify and mobilize the country to meet the great challenges of our time: the climate crisis and the ambitions of an autocratic China.”

‘Massive climate solution’

With the potential to be all-electric, high-speed rail could provide “a massive climate solution,” according to Kunz, as well as take thousands of carbon-emitting vehicles off the road.

Kunz added that it’s not that the U.S. isn’t spending money on transportation, but that auto, gasoline and air industry lobbying has had a big impact on where the funds will go.

Weinstein Agrawal added that massive infrastructure projects in the U.S. also face a litany of logistical hurdles and red tape — something that was exposed further in California’s problem-plagued high-speed rail project.

“We just build infrastructure very slowly in the United States, and some of it is a very good reason and some of it, probably not,” she said. “We’re not China, for better or worse, in terms of the way the government intervenes in these kinds of matters.”

“It’s very hard, frankly, for the federal government to just take huge swaths of land through eminent domain — it can be done, but it’s a very slow process,” she added.

Environmental and community impact review processes also take time and consultation, especially when building in already-developed and populous regions.

Yaro added that there is “just not a lot of confidence in our ability to do big things” among both the public and lawmakers.

“If Kennedy proposed a moon shot in this political environment, people are going to say, ‘Oh my God, that’s going to be really hard, how are we going to get there?’” Yaro said.

“And of course the moon shot unleashed a technological revolution which has powered the U.S. economy for half a century,” he added. “We could do this again.”

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