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More High-Speed Rail Needed in Highway Bill, State Officials Say

June 8, 2021

Rail companies and state officials are pushing lawmakers for more high-speed rail money in infrastructure legislation, along with measures to encourage private capital for the industry.

House Democrats’ surface transportation bill, proposed June 4, would authorize $547 billion over five years, including $95 billion for passenger and freight rail. Even with historic funding levels, groups and officials want additional money for high-speed rail and policy changes, such as increased public-private bonds and grants.

The bill “doesn’t go far enough” for high-speed rail and “leaves private funds sitting on the sidelines,” said Ben Porritt, senior vice president at Brightline, a privately funded high-speed rail company that built a line in Florida.

The legislation includes $25 billion for new high-speed and intercity passenger rail competitive funding called Passenger Rail Improvement, Modernization, and Expansion, or PRIME, grants. It also would authorize $900 million for Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing, or RRIF, loans for railroad infrastructure.

“If we are serious about breaking the inertia in this country around high-speed rail, we need to ensure programs like PRIME and RRIF provide a level playing field for all models of high-speed rail—whether public, private, or mixed—to deliver results to the American people as quickly and affordably as possible,” Porritt said.

Democrats have increasingly pushed for more funding for rail, while Republicans have favored boasting money for highways and roads in transportation legislation. GOP lawmakers proposed their own $400 billion highway bill last month; it didn’t include money for passenger rail.

House Democrats Seek $547 Billion for Highway, Transit Programs

Local officials also argue that President Joe Biden’s original $2.25 trillion infrastructure proposal should include more money for intercity passenger rail. A week ago, 26 mayors from across the country sent a letter to House and Senate leaders saying they would need “significantly larger investment to meet the scale of our needs from California and the West Coast to the Midwest and on to New England and the South.”

Private-Public Partnerships

California state Treasurer Fiona Ma wrote to leadership on the Senate Commerce and the House Transportation and Infrastructure committees Monday asking them to learn from the state’s high-speed rail struggles. California’s high-speed rail project, in the works for a decade, has been dogged by delays and additional funding needs.

Estimated costs for the California project are expected to reach as high as $100 billion according to a draft 2020 business plan, up from an original expected cost of about $33 billion. Some lawmakers point to the project’s flaws as reason to be cautious about high-speed rail. Rep. Michelle Steel (R-Calif.) recently sponsored legislation (H.R. 1472) to prohibit federal assistance for the project, which she calls a “failure.”

“The prospect of setting foot on a train still feels distant 13 years later despite the significant progress we’ve made,” Ma wrote. “Our experience in California has convinced me that we must embrace multiple delivery models if we hope to realize a cohesive national network of high-speed rail.”

Ma argues that Congress should allow public-private partnerships to qualify for federal rail grants, eliminate certain terms for Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing loans to make the funding more accessible, and broaden the availability of Private Activity Bonds.

“Spreading funding thinly across dozens of states and congressional districts to secure votes is a recipe for incremental progress with no new operational trains on the horizon,” Ma said.

These recommendations could have a chance for bipartisan support because Republicans have widely backed more private-public partnerships to fund major projects.

Tripling Amtrak Funds

The Commerce Committee, one of four authorizing panels in the Senate that will work on the highway bill, has yet to release its surface transportation reauthorization bill. Leaders on House Transportation and Infrastructure as well as Senate Commerce didn’t immediately return requests for comment.

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

Non-high-speed rail projects are in line for a significant amount of money in the House Democrats’ bill. The measure would triple money for Amtrak, authorizing $32 billion for the passenger rail service. That would allow the service to expand and “deliver the 21st century intercity passenger rail network that America needs,” Amtrak said in a statement.

Some lawmakers are trying to give certain high-speed rail projects priority in the surface transportation legislation. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.), along with 22 other members, wrote to Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) before the bill was released, asking him to authorize the North Atlantic Rail Corp. to receive federal money to build a new 100-minute high-speed rail ride between New York and Boston.

“President Biden has challenged us to think big and be ambitious and we should be looking to make a bold investment in America’s rail,” Suozzi said in an email Monday. “I will continue to work with the committee and my fellow members to advocate to bring high-speed rail to the northeast.”