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Fixes for ‘Decrepit’ Rail Split Democrats, GOP Over Price Tag

May 7, 2021

Democrats are pushing to support high-speed rail in President Joe Biden’s infrastructure legislation, stressing how it could reduce the transportation industry’s carbon footprint.

“High-speed rail could be the technology that fully unlocks the potential of passenger rail travel in this country,” Donald Payne Jr. (D-N.J.), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure railroad subcommittee, said Thursday.

His party’s ambitions to potentially tuck high-speed rail into Biden’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan are drawing concern from Republicans, who point to delays and high costs of such projects in California and Texas.

“We must ensure that any federal policies and funding are balanced with a realistic analysis of the needs, consumer demand, and best use of taxpayer dollars,” ranking member Rick Crawford(R-Ark.) said at the panel’s hearing.

Rail companies including Brightline Holdings LLC and Amtrak’s Acela, as well as emerging technologies from Northeast Maglev, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, and Virgin Hyperloop, are all seeking government support to build. Rail projects will be competing for funding with other infrastructure priorities including transit, highways, and bridges.

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Surface Transportation Funds

Payne, acknowledging the significant funding needed to build high-speed rail, said the U.S. is behind on this technology, and he wants to include it in legislation to reauthorize surface transportation. The current authorization, initially enacted as the FAST Act (Public Law 114-94) expires Sept. 30.

“Other countries have integrated high-speed rail systems into their transportation networks, and the United States has the opportunity to do the same,” Payne said.

While Democrats control both chambers of Congress, they face higher hurdles in the Senate, where some Republicans have opposed the size Biden’s spending for rail.

Senate Republicans have proposed $568 billion for infrastructure, with $20 billion dedicated to rail—compared with $80 billion in Biden’s plan, which didn’t lay out specifics for funding surface transportation.

The home state of pivotal Senate moderate Joe Manchin(D-W.Va.) was selected last year to host a test track and certification center for Virgin Hyperloop, which is testing pods envisioned to transport passengers at 600 miles an hour or faster.

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Highways’ Dominance

Since World War II, the federal government has spent $2 trillion on highways, $777 billion for aviation—versus $90 billion for rail, “so we wonder why we have a decrepit, pathetic network in this country,” full committee Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said at the hearing.

“What are we investing? Virtually nothing,” DeFazio said of U.S. high-speed rail projects. “When you invest nothing, you get nothing.”

DeFazio, in a statement, pointed to potentially lower carbon emissions. Congress should treat rail as a “central part of the solution to climate change” and develop a national program, he said.

Among competing priorities in Biden’s plan are: addressing Amtrak’s repair backlog, modernizing the Northeast Corridor, improving existing corridors, connecting new city pairs, and enhancing rail grants and loans.

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Subcommittee member Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) sponsored legislation (H.R. 1845) in March that would spend $205 billion on high-speed rail across the country.

“There are a number of high-speed rail systems that actually operate at a profit, whereas it’s very hard to find highway systems that operate at a profit at all, even after the infrastructure is built,” Moulton said at the hearing.

‘Money Pit’

Crawford, the ranking member, said the California High-Speed Rail projectwhich was originally proposed to link Los Angeles and San Francisco, was expected to cost $33 billion and be done in 2020, but is now projected to cost more than $100 billion with an estimated completion date more than a decade away.

“The project has been plagued by a failure to account for actual costs and work associated with obtaining land to build the track, eminent domain, environmental concerns, and whether low consumer demand will require permanent government subsidies,” he said.

Michelle Steel (R-Calif.), a member of the subcommittee, said the “failed project” in California is unpopular and has hurt rural and suburban communities. Steel sponsored a bill in March that would prohibit the use of federal assistance to fund the project.

“We must not continue throwing tax dollars into high-speed money pit,” she said at the hearing.

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In Texas, Carbett “Trey” Duhon III, a judge in Waller County there, said the proposed high-speed rail project in his state has overstated ridership and underestimated costs. It’s “a recipe for disaster,” he told the panel.

The Texas project was originally expected to be up and running by 2021 without taxpayer money, Duhon said, yet the “cost has tripled without even putting the shovel in the ground.”

DeFazio, speaking of the California rail, said Congress shouldn’t use one project’s woes to reject funding others.

“Investing once every other decade a small amount of money is not going to get us there,” he said. “I’d like to see larger sums.”