WASHINGTON – The $80 billion that President Joe Biden proposes to give Amtrak over eight years in his $2 trillion infrastructure proposal would be a windfall for an enterprise that typically receives $2 billion from the federal government per year.
But both critics and those who share Biden’s goal of a high-quality national network of passenger rail — one that rivals systems in China or Europe — say it’s not enough.
“It’s a massive number, and we’re a massive country and it is not enough to ensure that every corridor that benefits from high-speed rail service is going to get significant funding,” said Adie Tomer, the head of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the moderate Brookings Institution.
Biden’s plan can’t, for example, fully pay for a nationwide investment in high-speed rail, the repair backlog the Amtrak system faces and build out the comprehensive national network the federally supported passenger railroad wants.
“If you go too small, there’s no way the money is enough,” said David Ditch, a research associate at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “If you go too big, you’ve got to get a big return on your investment.”
As Congress begins to weigh Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan, how that $80 billion for passenger rail would be spent will be an important question.
That much became evident last week when the House Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee grilled Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about the Biden proposal. Five lawmakers asked about the administration’s plans for rail during the hearing.
“Can you help me, give me some context behind the benefits of this kind of expense for what I believe is certainly not a population that I represent?” asked Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark.
Others, such as Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., cautioned Buttigieg from spending tax dollars on California’s controversial high-speed rail project, saying the project is more than a decade behind schedule, and costs $100 billion after initial estimates put it at $33 billion. “I will go on the record as high-speed rail in California will not help our traffic problems,” he said.
Amtrak this month released an ambitious map that included more than 30 new routes and more frequent service over 20 lines. The rail company said it could serve up to 160 new communities across the country over the next 15 years. Their plan, however, is not necessarily Biden’s plan, which hasn’t been unveiled beyond the top-line figure for passenger rail.
Buttigieg argues that expanding rail would lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions as people increasingly viewed it as a viable alternative to automobiles. It would also lead Americans to realize that they, too, could have a world-class passenger rail system.
The proposed $80 billion investment, Buttigieg said, presents a “historic opportunity to set up some of the routes that will help to not only open up the specific transportation possibilities where those routes lie but also just demonstrate that America could lead the world in this if we chose to by beginning to actually do it.
“Seeing, I think, is often believing,” he said.
The proposal comes after Congress spent $3.5 billion to keep Amtrak solvent during the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused a steep decline in ridership. The Biden administration has also increased its budget request for Amtrak in fiscal 2022, asking for $2.7 billion and a new $625 million passenger rail grant program.
While rail advocates praise the proposal as a much-needed spark to create the next rail Renaissance, critics dismiss the proposal as an unjustifiable boondoggle.
David Ditch, a Heritage Foundation research associate, said bus service and airplanes have been sufficient in providing non-automotive alternatives to travel from city to city.
He questioned the notion of adding rail to places like Cheyenne, Wyo., or Duluth, Mont., or Montgomery, Ala. “None of these lines are going to be anywhere near self-sustaining,” he said. “It’s not like someone in Rockland, Maine, wants to travel to Auburn, Ala., or Pueblo, Colo., (by train). If you’re going to go these incredibly long distances, you’re going to fly.”
Moving the needle
“No amount of subsidization is ever going to move the needle on the demand for intercity rail,” Ditch said.
Marc Joffe, a senior policy analyst with the Reason Foundation…
Read More: Too much or too little?