President Biden’s infrastructure plan calls for an unprecedented boost in federal aid to the nation’s passenger rail system, seeking to address Amtrak’s repair backlog, extend service to more cities and modernize the network in the Northeast Corridor.
“President Biden’s infrastructure plan is what this nation has been waiting for,” Amtrak chief executive William J. Flynn said, while echoing Biden’s push to rebuild and improve the busy Washington-Boston rail corridor.
Under the White House plan, intercity rail would receive up to a 400 percent boost in funding, according to some estimates, a transformational investment that could bring major rail expansions and millions more riders. The passenger railroad receives about $2 billion of federal subsidies annually to cover operations in its national and Northeast networks, as well as other grants and funding for state-sponsored service.
The $2 trillion infrastructure package proposes about $600 billion of transportation investments, including $115 billion to rebuild bridges and highways, $85 billion for transit, $25 billion to repair and upgrade airports, and $20 billion for safety initiatives to reduce traffic fatalities. The money, to be spent over eight years, also would address mobility, climate and transportation equity concerns.
Amtrak on Wednesday unveiled a plan to provide new intercity rail service to 160 communities and expand service in corridors with heightened demand for rail transportation. The passenger railroad also unveiled a map that highlights 30 possible new routes.
The federal funding would help Amtrak accomplish long-needed upgrades to tracks, tunnels and bridges in the Northeast, the nation’s busiest rail corridor. Amtrak has a $45.2 billion backlog of projects that it says are needed to bring its assets to a state of good repair in the region.
Among those projects is the replacement of the Civil War-era Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel in Baltimore, expected to cost $4.5 billion. Other improvements could be achieved by replacing the North River Tunnels, a more than century-old structure that carries about 200,000 daily passenger trips beneath the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York. An $11.3 billion plan would double the capacity of existing tunnels, which were damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Amtrak and other rail services could travel more quickly with the elimination of choke points, additional tracks and other improvements. The passenger railroad has identified about $18 billion of “available or likely to be available” funding for projects in the Northeast in the next five years, including the North River Tunnels project.
“The [Northeast’s] many major tunnels and bridges — most of which are over a century old — must be replaced and upgraded to avoid devastating consequences for our transportation network and the country,” Flynn said in a statement.
In budget documents released Wednesday, the White House acknowledged that the nation’s rail system lacks a multiyear funding stream to addresses deferred maintenance and to enhance service.
“There are currently projects just waiting to be funded that will give millions more Americans reliable and fast intercity train service,” the White House said.
The plan’s path in a divided Congress is unclear. Democrats, who narrowly control both chambers, generally are enthusiastic about the proposal, as are transportation advocates, but the plan received a cold reception from Republican congressional leaders. Many are questioning aspects of the plan and the tax increases proposed to pay for it.
The proposal marks a new moment for Amtrak, which under the Trump administration was targeted for budget reductions. Trump’s final budget proposal sought to slash federal aid to Amtrak by more than half, as well as phase out aid for long-distance service.
Rail has historically received limited federal aid in comparison with highways and other vehicle-related infrastructure. But Jim Mathews, the chief executive of the Rail Passengers Association, said Biden’s plan has the potential to “revolutionize the way Americans travel.”
“This plan represents new rail cars, new corridors, new city pairs and more frequencies on the National Network,” he said in a statement.
Amtrak’s proposed expansion would connect more cities and increase train frequencies in some corridors by 2035, when it expects to serve 20 million more passengers. Amtrak served a record 32.5 million passengers in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic.
In recent years, Amtrak has added state-supported service in Virginia and Massachusetts, and adjusted schedules in California’s Central Valley to be more convenient for weekend travelers.
The company also is pitching routes between Nashville and Atlanta, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and Louisville and Chicago, and is advocating to revive a route between New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., that was discontinued after Hurricane Katrina.
In the Midwest, plans call for more trains on the popular 90-mile line between Chicago and Milwaukee. Amtrak’s projections for the West Coast include more trains between Los Angeles and San Diego, and between Portland, Ore., and Seattle, two routes where demand for passenger service is growing.
Rail advocates say they will campaign to build support for the infrastructure plan.
“America needs a rail network that offers frequent, reliable, sustainable and equitable train service,” Flynn said. “Now is our time. Let’s make rail the solution.”