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Opinion: Biden should invest $1 trillion on trains

Now that Joe Biden is president-elect, he must ask Congress to include a rail infrastructure package in any upcoming coronavirus relief bill. For the sake of the economy—and the climate—any economic relief bill must fund rail infrastructure investments at a massive scale. The United States has underinvested in passenger rail for decades, leaving our country far behind peer nations across the world and making us dependent on highly unsustainable automobile-based transportation and freight. Joe Biden has promised that part of his vision for a post-COVID economic recovery is a “second great railroad revolution” in the United States, and he has no time to lose. 

New Acela 21 in Testing. Image Source: Amtrak

The economic crisis presented by the coronavirus allows us the opportunity to jump start the economy by reinvesting in the United States’ rail infrastructure on an unprecedented scale. This investment will mitigate damage from the coronavirus’s economic fallout and will help the country transition to a clean energy future. The federal government alone has spent at least $2.8 trillion on highways since 1956, and thus the incoming administration must include in any stimulus bill a rail infrastructure package of at least $1 trillion dollars to form a United States High Speed Rail Authority, undertake new rapid transit construction, and enhance regional rail service around the country.

In order to realize Biden’s vision of a second rail renaissance, he must create an independent United States High Speed Rail Authority with dedicated annual funding to purchase, upgrade, and build high speed rail infrastructure around the country without relying on states to implement the construction of the system. This authority must initially prioritize upgrades to existing infrastructure while also planning for new dedicated high speed rail lines with dedicated annual funding. It must exist outside of Amtrak and own both the trackage rights and associated infrastructure, allowing Amtrak to operate solely as a passenger rail carrier. Even 5% of the annual Pentagon budget (roughly $37 billion) dedicated to passenger rail infrastructure would allow a radical transformation in US passenger and freight railroads, something President-elect Biden has promised to pursue when elected. This funding redirection would provide the Department of Transportation the funds to radically invest in our railroad infrastructure, which is crucial for our economic prosperity and national defense. Using this new pool of funding, the next administration should fully fund California’s high speed rail project, assist in building out the Texas and Florida high speed rail systems already under construction, and build all of Amtrak’s recommended upgrades to the Northeast Corridor. Emphasis should be placed on identified projects based on need and economic benefit, while also planning for the next 50 years of US rail infrastructure. 

Beyond our country’s glaring deficit in high speed rail, every major city in the United States requires significant capital investment in local rail transportation. New York City has needed a new subway line for over 80 years and the Washington, D.C. area has needed a second tunnel at Rosslyn Station since the ‘90s. While cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland have all invested greatly in rail transportation, the federal government refused to pick up more than half the cost of projects, forcing cities to pick and choose between desperately needed light and heavy rail lines. This scarcity on the local level has led to projects being selected for their political expediency, and not their maximum efficacy. The San Francisco Bay Area is in dire need of a second trans-bay tube, and Minneapolis has already reached frequency capacity on its existing light-rail lines. Sunbelt cities have now sprawled past the point where automobile-based transportation can solve congestion issues, and cities like Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Charlotte and Miami are all struggling to build out their rail transportation networks to match the rapid growth they’ve experienced over the last three decades. Dozens of projects are waiting for federal matching funds to break ground, and Joe Biden should devote resources into making sure Congress funds all of these projects at least at 90% of their total cost. This could begin an urban rail renaissance to rival our international peers and reshape how US cities move their populations. 

The United States has dismal commuter and regional rail compared to peer countries like France, the UK, Japan, China and South Korea. Despite being the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, this country still lacks reliable, large regional rail networks outside of a handful of cities. Even legacy regional rail infrastructure is in dire shape, with many commuter rail systems having stub endings – where routes end in a single station in the urban core – or insufficient reliability or frequency. Using international best practices from Germany, France, Spain and Japan, a new infrastructure and stimulus bill could transform regional rail systems. By constructing tunnels through metropolitan cores, the US could connect commuter rail lines and transform them into high-frequency regional rail. Necessary and delayed projects include creating these new crossrail-style tunnels linking regional rail lines in Boston, DC, and Chicago; creating a regional rail system, similar to the RER system in the Ile-de-France region, in the New York tri-state region with train lines running through Manhattan via the new Gateway project; funding true, high-frequency regional rail lines in cities that lack them like Minneapolis, Kansas City, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Raleigh; and fully electrifying existing commuter rail lines in DC, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Chicago to increase frequencies and transition services away from fossil fuel-based energy. These improvements would allow metros to begin implementing truly transit-oriented development and reign in the suburban sprawl that is driven by endless highway expansion. 

A Republican controlled Senate will certainly complicate any proposed shifts in funding priorities, but the amount of investment needed in the United States’ rail infrastructure is staggering. There are plenty of critically-needed projects which would allow funds to be spread equally around the country. Additionally, the economy is in desperate need of fiscal stimulus, and any package brought to Congress to deal with the coronavirus pandemic should include multi-year infrastructure spending. The government’s borrowing costs have never been lower, making Biden’s first term the perfect time for significant transportation investments. Construction of new or upgraded highways should be off the table due to the current climate emergency. Instead, rail transportation should be prioritized because it is more resource-efficient than driving and encourages both better land use and dense, sustainable living. In order to make the dollars invested go further, the House Oversight Committee should investigate why rail infrastructure costs in the United States are the highest in the world. This would allow for the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on rail projects to be scrutinized without sacrificing quality or quantity of new rail infrastructure. 

This economic crisis offers the United States a unique opportunity to invest trillions of dollars in our country’s future. A necessary component of any economic stimulus must be an emphasis on the United States’ decaying rail infrastructure. If we are to survive this economic crisis, the collapse in our passenger rail infrastructure and our changing climate, we will need improved and widely available electrified rail transportation.

Speed Rogers

About Speed Rogers

Speed Rogers is an anthropologist, medical student, and housing activist based in Minnesota. His research interests include how transportation and housing policy affect health outcomes. You can follow him on Twitter @jspeedrogers