Passenger Rail Could Be The Winner of a Biden Infrastructure Bill

Image: Jason Vanderhill/Flickr

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

While working to pass a COVID relief package through both houses of Congress, the Biden administration is simultaneously working on its next priority legislative package: a much-awaited $2T infrastructure bill

One of the anticipated winners of this bill could be passenger rail, as President Biden has said he wants to bring about a “second great railroad revolution” in America, with a focus on fast, affordable transit in low-income areas and high-speed, cross-country rail systems. 

Democrats are hopeful that “Amtrak” Joe’s love of America’s railroads and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s promise to improve rail infrastructure will help propel railway policy to the forefront of the nation’s infrastructure goals.

Why This Matters: Though passenger rail has greatly suffered due to a lack of ridership during the pandemic,  riders are expected to return and we must make investments in our public transit systems. 

Public transportation has a multitude of benefits for municipalities, people, and our planet. It can lower commuting costs, create job opportunities, promote economic growth, and get cars off the road. Transportation is the single greatest source of U.S. carbon emissions and an aggressive expansion of passenger rail is a critical tool in decreasing emissions and tackling the climate crisis. 

Post-Pandemic Mobility: The COVID-19 pandemic has brought trains and busses to a grinding halt, with even the most utilized public transport systems facing some 70% drops in ridership. For communities of color and impoverished communities, who ride public transport at higher rates and are more likely to be essential workers, this has limited access to jobs and income. 

Although stay-at-home orders took many cars off the road, and temporarily lowered America’s total carbon footprint, many public transport systems may not recover in a post-COVID world without the help of the federal government. Without this help, the nation could lose a crucial weapon in the battles against socioeconomic inequity and climate change.


So, What’s the Plan?

This past Saturday, the House of Representatives passed President Biden’s $1.9T American Rescue Plan which set aside $28 billion in grants for transit agencies in an effort to help them survive lost ridership and protect the jobs of workers. A subsequent infrastructure bill would be necessary to invest in fortifying and expanding passenger rail systems in the United States.

Secretary Buttigieg has indicated that he wants the United States to lead the world in high-speed rail, though investments in a multitude of passenger rail projects around the nation would provide important benefits and create jobs. 

There are already numerous proposals for rail projects, some of which are already underway. Many of them are what Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of policy and government affairs for the Rail Passengers Association, calls “low-hanging fruit,” ripe for federal investment, including projects along the East Coast and in Texas, California, Florida, and the Pacific Northwest. “The stars don’t often align in the federal government, and we are at this moment where the White House, the House and the Senate are all in agreement that this is the time to dramatically increase investment in infrastructure,” said Jeans-Gail. 

Already, Democrats in Congress are proposing legislation that would expand passenger rail. 

  • Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) has proposed a bill that would invest $205 billion in one high-speed rail network over 5 years. 
  • If his bill is passed, the network could connect cities without airports and create 2.6 million new jobs

Although Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) expressed that Republicans may not support Biden’s infrastructure package due to the cost, Buttigieg says that this moment offers a rare “bipartisan appetite for a generational opportunity to transform and improve America’s infrastructure.”


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