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Congress Nears the Finish Line

September 28, 2021

Congress Debates Bills that would Create the Foundation for National HSR Network

The quick version:

  • Lawmakers face critical votes this week involving Track 1 of the Alliance’s “four track” model of railroad-related legislation in Congress.

  • Track 1 is the roughly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill (BIF) that contains $66 billion for passenger trains. Highlights include $6 billion for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC) grants; $24 billion for Amtrak/state partnerships; $16 billion for Amtrak’s national network; and $12 billion for other passenger train corridors, including high-speed train projects.

  • Details of Track 2—the so-called “reconciliation” bill—are being negotiated, but it currently contains $3.5 trillion in spending over 10 years. Unlike the infrastructure bill, it would include dedicated funding for HSR projects. The House version that just passed the Transportation Committee contains $10 billion for HSR over five years.

  • Together, the bills would make historic investments in passenger rail and HSR in the U.S., and the projects they fund would create a solid foundation for a national HSR network.

  • The Senate has already approved the infrastructure bill. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) plans a House vote on the bill on Thursday. Divisions among Democrats, however, threaten to sink both the infrastructure and reconciliation bills (Tracks 1 and 2).

  • Please take a moment to write and call your representatives. Tell them that you support both bills and that you want them to push for the highest level of funding possible in the reconciliation bill.

  • Congress has folded what was originally Track 3—the surface transportation authorization bill—into the BIF, so the fate of both bills is now linked. On Track 4—the FY 2022 appropriations bill—Congress is wrangling over how to pass a continuing resolution that would extend the deadline to early December. Senate Republicans blocked its passage on Monday, due to objections over raising the debt ceiling, which puts another urgent item on Congress’s agenda for later this week.

Last month, the Senate passed a version of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill with a strong bipartisan majority. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who previously said the House would vote on it yesterday, has moved the vote to Thursday at the earliest. 

Tensions among centrist and progressive Democrats make it unclear whether the bill will pass. Progressive members are linking their vote on the BIF to the fate of the Track 2 reconciliation bill. That bill Includes funding for a wide range of not only transportation projects but social and education-related programs that progressives strongly favor.  

Progressives have threatened to block the BIF unless some version of the reconciliation bill is voted on simultaneously, for fear of giving up their leverage if the BIF passes first. 

Because Democrats have narrow margins in both chambers—and no Republicans support the reconciliation bill—Democrats need near-total unity to succeed. That reality makes the passage of both bills uncertain. It is also uncertain what the final reconciliation bill will look like, as negotiations continue over its size and scope.

One thing is clear, however. The passage of either bill would provide a massive boost to passenger trains and transit systems in the U.S. 

Long-delayed projects would finally be completed. Others in the planning stages would begin soon. For example, the New York Times recently published an overview of major projects that could be funded if the BIF passes.

The dedicated HSR funding would allow projects like California HSR, currently under construction in the Central Valley, to move quickly to secure federal funding and work towards getting 220 mph trains in operation by the end of the decade.

The Times also singled out several other passenger-rail and transit projects that might benefit from the infrastructure package, including a new light-rail line in Portland, Oregon; electrified rail service between Boston and Providence (RI); and fixes to a bottleneck in New York/New Jersey region that slows rail traffic throughout the Northeast. The last project—called the Gateway Program—would double rail capacity between New Jersey and Penn Station in New York City by creating a new tunnel under the Hudson River. It would also repair the existing tunnel and substantially upgrade Penn Station. 

Numerous other railroad projects could also be funded by the bills. Rapid progress is underway right now in the Southeast—where HSR lines are in the planning stages for lines from Atlanta to Dallas and Atlanta to Charlotte—and in the Midwest, where a newly formed commission could prove to be the first step toward a regional—and then national—HSR network. 

Bottom line: We are on the verge of achieving transformative levels of funding for HSR, passenger trains, and transit systems across the U.S. 

Your voice is needed to get this legislation across the line. Please contact your representatives right now—by email and, even better, by phone.