Years ago, Barack Obama and Joe Biden tried to make high-speed rail happen. Now as president, does Biden want to finish the job
BY PREM THAKKER
MAY 26, 2021
“Amtrak Joe” Biden has made over 7,000 round trips on Amtrak throughout his life. The Amtrak station in Wilmington, Delaware, is named after him. He still counts conductors and train personnel he encountered on daily trips to Washington among his friends.
Biden spent eight years working in an Obama administration that earnestly attempted to steam America toward high-speed rail. In the 2009 stimulus, President Obama directed $8 billion as a first step, consciously positioning it as a legacy item. “This is America, there’s no reason why the future of travel should lie somewhere else beyond our borders,” he saidn a speech that April, referencing other countries where high-speed rail is the norm. “[It] will be faster, cheaper and easier than building more freeways or adding to an already overburdened aviation system, and everybody stands to benefit.”
But the $8 billion investment depended on support from state governors, just at the moment in 2010 when many of those seats flipped to Republicans. In time, governors from Florida (now-Sen. Rick Scott), Ohio (never-Trump paragon John Kasich), and Wisconsin (Scott Walker) all rejected the stimulus money. Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican, described how urgent it felt to just pass the 2009 stimulus bill. “There wasn’t a lot of debate about whether Republican governors would really participate or not. We didn’t realize until after we really got into it that it was going to be a problem,” LaHood told the Prospect
Fast-forward to 2021. Rail enthusiast Biden is now president, and his signature priority is rebuilding American infrastructure. He has the opportunity to deliver what previously evaded him and his boss. And he campaigned on it. In his 2020 clean-energy plan, Biden laid out a broad road map to spark the “second greatest railroad revolution” by ensuring the nation has the “cleanest, safest, and fastest rail system in the world.”
However, in Biden’s American Jobs Plan, the guiding document for the Build Back Better agenda, one key phrase is missing: high-speed rail. The proposal invests $80 billion in Amtrak—America’s quasi-public and only real national rail service—but most of it would go to funding repair projects, improving existing corridors, enhancing safety, and supporting electrification. There is a call for “modernizing” the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak’s most successful routes, but that would probably only lead to faster rather than high-speed rail, along the lines of the Acela.
Amtrak embraced Biden’s plan, similarly ignoring any mention of high-speed rail, in a now-removed pamphlet that focused primarily on “new or improved routes.” In his Pennsylvania address celebrating Amtrak’s 50th anniversary, Biden only used the word “high-speed” three times, twice invoking China’s high-speed rail system and once recalling his predecessor’s goal to enact high-speed rail.
At no point did Biden simply say, “We need high-speed rail.” It has fallen off the agenda as a priority. And the big question is, why?
FROM THE EDGE of California’s Pacific Coast to the Atlantic tips of Maine, the United States stretches some 2,800 miles wide. America is truly massive, with 50 states that often feel physically, and politically, disparate. Indeed, one of the merits of nationalized high-speed rail—beyond convenience, cutting emissions, and increasing access to employment opportunities and general mobility—is to fundamentally change people’s relations to distance and time. It is to make people feel less isolated from one another.
Author, journalist, and Northern Michigan University professor James McCommons spent a year traversing America via rail, speaking to riders and workers. “There were some people talking about, ‘Well, we should just build trains on the East Coast and on the West Coast because that’s where all the people are and that makes sense,’” McCommons says. “But we didn’t build the interstate system just in those places, we built the interstate system to cross distances.”
He notes how increased mobility impacts how people carry out their lives, and how accessible transit can spur development along the line, even in sparsely populated areas. “If you ride the Empire Builder across the northern tier of the states, you will find people in Montana getting on those trains to ride to Minneapolis, or to go to the Mayo Clinic because they have an illness … A train isn’t like an airplane where people get on at point A and off at point B. They’re getting on and off all through the route.”
This kind of investment in connectivity couldn’t come at a more opportune time. While nearly 70 percent of people think America is greatly divided, 93 percent say it is important to reduce those divides. People in America are not only physically scattered across a massive nation, they also perceive that nation to be more polarized than it actually is.
In Biden’s American Jobs Plan, the guiding document for the Build Back Better agenda, one key phrase is missing: high-speed rail.
This faux polarization applies directly to high-speed rail, a project often dismissed as politically toxic. Majorities agree that the government should invest more to support the public and its infrastructure, seen in the popularity of the American Jobs and American Families Plans, and the three-decade record high of people who think the government should do more to solve the nation’s problems. On the specifics, support for public transit and passenger rail now sits in the mid-60s, rising from pre-pandemic levels (public transit at 58 percent, passenger rail at 59 percent). Amtrak itself enjoyed record revenue and ridership immediately before the pandemic.
“People come back from Europe after riding the trains scratching their heads, ‘Why don’t we have it in America?’” says LaHood. “Because the national government never provided the leadership, or the money to do it.” Typically, the federal government dedicates about half of all transportation infrastructure spending, around $50 billion, toward highways. This $50 billion rivals the total amount Amtrak has received spanning its 50-year existence. “If highways were funded in the same way we fund passenger rail, we’d still be driving on dirt roads,” said Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn in a May 6 congressional hearing.
Building out our rail networks could also help address the nation’s epidemic of loneliness and isolation, particularly for older adults. In June 2020, 56 percent of older adults reported feeling isolated, compared to 27 percent in 2018. Part of this stems from being separated from family and friends as they retire and move elsewhere, or their children move away. If those long distances could be traveled on a nationalized high-speed rail network, it could help people feel less alone, able to access friends, family, or even simply other places previously deemed unreachable.
Biden explicitly ran on unifying the country, bridging divides, and building back better while doing it. People feel lonely, think the nation is divided, and support the idea of a government that cares. If nothing else, Biden ran on transforming a moment of chaos and dysfunction into a new moment of healing and reconstruction. If Biden wants to genuinely bridge divides and bring people in this massive, continent-spanning country closer together, he is obligated to take the reins and start with the rails.
McCommons views trains as hosts of the “zeitgeist of America,” where an array of unique combinations of people will interact and learn from each other. “I almost always liked traveling by myself. I never felt lonely because I’d always meet people. You get on a lot of trains and you see this whole cross section of people who are using these because the train is there.”
ONE PROBLEM IS THAT the high-speed rail projects in motion do not inspire enthusiasm for a national network. In 2008, California voters approved issuing nearly $10 billion in bonds to construct a high-speed rail system connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles. Construction has been ongoing since 2015, after the state recouped some of the rejected funds from those states whose Republican governors stonewalled. Unfortunately, the guinea pig project has been dogged with hurdles: mismanagement, cost increases, lack of coordination, and delays. Externally, the project has come up against a wall of lawsuits and NIMBY-like resistance. As Prospect executive editor David Dayen describes, “It’s been a familiar two-step: opponents use available tools to grind projects to a halt, thereby ballooning costs. And then they complain that the projects cost too much.”
Outsourcing project management to a large array of consultants has led to significant cost overruns and chaotic development. Moreover, many contract managers—some of whom were not even serving in their roles full-time—were unable to provide evidence of consistent review on deliverables, accurate invoices, or even quality of work. Currently, the goal is to connect Bakersfield and Merced in the Central Valley, with the larger cities to be added at some undefined time in the future. The estimated cost has nearly tripled, from $33 billion to almost $100 billion, and service has been delayed indefinitely. The chief operating officer just quit, after two long investigations over “large unmerited payments to contractors.”
A spokesperson for the project expressed optimism, conceding that “any project this big is going to have challenges.” They pointed to milestones accomplished despite a pandemic and no substantial government support during the past four years, including doubling the number of construction jobs created since 2018, tripling the number of structures either under construction or completed, and dedicating $423 million in funds to reconstruct Los Angeles’s Union Station. But until there’s a working prototype, it’s hard to generate much excitement, and plenty for naysayers to point to as something to avoid.
The high-speed rail effort in Texas is not reliant on state or federal grants. The project, led by Texas Central, aims to span the 240 miles between Houston and Dallas in less than 90 minutes. Texas Central’s website specifically contrasts its “investor-owned system” to California’s “public-owned project,” arguing that this distinction means Texas Central “requires fiscal discipline and accountability for every decision made during the development of the project.” Regardless, the Texas project shares California’s struggles, and resistance from particular officials and landowners.
There’s also an investor-owned service called Brightline between Miami and Orlando, Florida, which has been suspended for the duration of the pandemic and whose top speed is only 125 mph. Nothing in America at this point has hit the sweet spot of truly high speeds, passenger enthusiasm, and cost-effective construction. And with the demonstration projects seen as ineffective at best, it’s difficult for the government to take on skeptics and make the case.
Still, some are trying. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) has introduced the American High-Speed Rail Act, which includes plans to invest $205 billion over five years in high-speed rail projects, prioritizing applicants based on factors such as equity, sustainability, economic development, and locations not serviced by other transportation options. Moulton is aiming beyond the consensus that focuses on upgrading existing infrastructure. “We cannot squander this generational opportunity to invest in infrastructure by investing in the last generation’s infrastructure. We need to invest in world-class infrastructure for the future,” Moulton told the Prospect.
Coincidentally, Moulton briefly served as managing director at Texas Central. Despite seeming differences with administration officials, he is optimistic that they are listening, citing conversations he has shared with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the White House’s willingness to engage with Moulton on why high-speed rail is preferable as a generational investment in infrastructure. “I don’t want anybody to feel forced to ride a train, I want people to choose to train because it’s faster, cleaner, safer, nicer,” he says. “What my bill does is just: Give rail a chance, put it on a level playing field.”
While Biden’s administration now grapples with transportation revitalization, this is the time for climate activists to specifically rally for high-speed rail.
Any hope of giving high-speed rail a real chance will, yes, require more level investment. But as demonstrated by the aforementioned guinea pig projects, it will also require competent, durable, and focused leadership that doesn’t allow consultants to stray the mission off track through incompetency or poor cost management and oversight. And while the California High-Speed Rail Authority seems amenable to learning from past errors, it is crucial to hold entities accountable to not repeating them.
Moreover, there needs to be a coherent advocacy front. In broad terms, the Sunrise Movement and other climate action groups have influenced Biden’s rhetoric and general ambitions, including his infrastructure package. Progressives have recently introduced Green New Deals for public housing and cities, while the American Jobs Plan includes a provision to create a Civilian Climate Corps. But the last time the Sunrise Movement even tweeted about rail as of this reporting was July 18, 2020; high-speed rail is one of the policy planks of the Green New Deal. While Biden’s administration now grapples with transportation revitalization, this is the time for climate activists to specifically rally for high-speed rail, and for efforts like Rep. Moulton’s to explicitly coordinate with these groups. Advocates need to get serious and learn from the hurdles that have plagued projects like California’s, and then apply those lessons to straightforward and refined advocacy for high-speed rail.
In his 2009 high-speed rail announcement, President Barack Obama said: “In retrospect, America’s march forward seems inevitable. But time and again, it’s only made possible by generations that are willing to work and sacrifice and invest in plans to make tomorrow better than today. That’s the vision we can’t afford to lose sight of.”
In 2021, President Biden has the chance to tap into that spirit, exhibited especially by the activists and organizers who helped him get into office in the first place. He has the opportunity to bring Americans physically and emotionally closer together. He has the ability to take up his former boss’s lost ambition and take steps toward revolutionizing transportation in this country.
It’s up to you, Amtrak Joe.