The largest federal investment in the nation’s infrastructure in decades includes no dedicated funding for high-speed rail, once a top transportation priority in the White House.
The omission reflects how the issue of high-speed rail has largely disappeared from the policy debate in Washington.
In 2011, President Barack Obama called for giving 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years. The lofty goal was quickly shelved after Republican objections to federal spending. Today, there’s only one true high-speed rail project in the works, in central California, but it’s been set back by lengthy permitting delays and huge cost overruns.
The Senate is expected to approve legislation this week that includes $1.2 trillion in spending aimed at modernizing the nation’s roads, bridges, airports, railways and waterways. It’s a major bipartisan achievement for Congress and for President Joe Biden, an avid train fan who often commuted to work in Washington, D.C., from his home state of Delaware, and who campaigned on the issue prior to taking office in January.
“Imagine what we can do, what’s within our reach, when we modernize those highways,” Biden said at an event in March intended to highlight his infrastructure plan. “You and your family could travel coast to coast without a single tank of gas on board a high-speed train.”
But that vision, which is already a reality in some European and Asian countries, is a long way from realization in the United States.
The Senate bill provides $66 billion for intercity rail programs, which the White House calls the “largest investment in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak 50 years ago.” The funding would go toward improving and expanding existing rail infrastructure, especially in the Northeast Corridor, which is among the highest-volume rail corridors in the world. That means addressing glaring inadequacies in the outdated Amtrak system, fixing bottlenecks to reduce trip length, connecting new cities in both urban and rural areas and improving passenger safety.
Still, transit advocates are holding out hope that Congress will do more, even as they welcomed the bill and urged lawmakers to send it to the president’s desk. That includes boosting construction of new, high-profile rail projects connecting Dallas to Houston or Los Angeles to Las Vegas. The hope is that these projects, once completed, would influence the public’s perception of high-speed rail and increase demand for it nationwide.
“It’s a good start,” said Rick Harnish, executive director of the advocacy group High Speed Rail Alliance. “We’re glad it’s moving forward and want to see it get passed, but it is missing the high-speed component.”