Congress Makes Historic Investments In Trains. What's Next?
We have a deal, finally.
When Congress finalized details of President Biden’s package of infrastructure investments over the weekend, they positioned the United States to make transformative investments in trains. The infrastructure bill contains $66 billion over five years in funding for passenger rail. High-speed rail corridors would be eligible for about $12 billion of those funds, and the bill also contains an additional $39 billion for public transit.
This is great news, but it’s just the first step in the process of transforming America’s transportation system. The latest action by Congress must be matched with big investments—and a strong show of political will—in Washington, DC, and in state legislatures across the country.
Here are four high-impact opportunities for HSR advocates to build on this momentum by taking action at the state and regional level.
Even with the investment that Congress just made in rail, our country will have a greater number of worthy rail projects in the years ahead than these funds can cover. Instead of making high-speed rail projects compete for a limited pool of funds, we should dedicate at least $10 billion exclusively for high-speed rail. That would mark another major step forward for this clean, modern, transformative mode of transportation.
Although it has made great progress recently, some legislators in the California Assembly want to shift the funds to other, local projects. With Congress opting to invest in world-class, twenty-first century transportation systems, this is the moment to double down on—not abandon—California’s HSR project. When it will be ready depends on the Assembly’s commitment to investing in it. But one thing is sure: nothing has the power to build support for HSR in the U.S. like a line that’s in operation—especially a line that connects two marquee cities—Los Angeles and San Francisco—in one of the nation’s most vibrant economies.
A great starting point is the Midwest Regional Rail Plan, recently published by the Federal Railroad Administration. As the Alliance noted, it is momentous because it does three key things: 1) Creates a vision for a network of high-speed trains that would transform travel across the Midwest. 2) Makes a strong case for fast, frequent trains that are coordinated and well-integrated into a network. 3) Shows the importance of regional cooperation and big-picture planning. Along with the Illinois High Speed Rail Commission, the Midwest Regional Rail Plan marks a milestone for the future of high-speed rail—not only in the region but across the nation.
Over the summer, the Georgia Department of Transportation released its Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement for an Atlanta-Charlotte line. The next steps are a Tier 2 assessment and then the planning process. Meantime, a private firm announced plans for an Atlanta-Dallas line. Together, these lines would create a system of fast, frequent trains that stretches all the way from Boston to Houston. In turn, a network that connects the Northeast and Southeast would incentivize building lines from Atlanta to Nashville, Indianapolis, and the entire Midwest. And that’s how a national network will happen. As each region becomes more connected, the incentives to connect the regional networks will multiply. A national network of fast, frequent trains—once a far-off dream—is becoming a real possibility.
One thing the debates over these bills made clear is that Congress isn’t ready for many of the elements of President Biden’s agenda to tackle climate change. A carbon tax, for example, was cut from the Build Back Better bill. Yet, at the same time, report after report calls for decisive action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. And the urgency of acting becomes clearer by the day.
Enter the solution that delivers big results and has strong bi-partisan support: trains.
Zero-emissions, high-speed trains—running on 100-percent renewable energy—are the electric vehicles that actually get the job done.
Not only are they exponentially more energy-efficient than cars and planes. They transform development patterns. They deliver people right to the heart of downtowns and encourage development around stations—which boosts land values and builds wealth.
That’s why trains are the future. They offer safe, stress-free, quick, and affordable travel—while slashing carbon emissions, building strong economies, and revitalizing communities.
As fans of high-speed rail, we have a lot to talk about right now.
Let’s celebrate this moment and double down on making our case for trains as a bold, transformative—and bipartisan—solution to the economic and environmental challenges we face.