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High-speed rail and the state of play in D.C. right now

July 29, 2021
The 30-second version

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updated 7/29/21 to include progress on the infrastructure bill. You can read our response to the bipartisan agreement here.

This is a profoundly exciting moment for U.S. passenger rail. 

Several bills that will determine the future of trains are moving through Congress simultaneously. The bills would substantially boost investments in trains and would put railroads front and center in national investment and planning decisions.

The details are rapidly evolving and in flux. That makes things confusing—but it also opens up incredible opportunities to make an impact. If there’s ever been a moment for passenger rail advocates to press our demands, this is it. 

Contact your representatives by email and tweet—and especially by phone. Let them know you want Congress to push through transformative levels of investment for trains and transit. The more concrete you can be, the better. Please take a look at our primer below and mention a few details in your note and phone call. 

Emails, tweets, and other written notes make a difference. But, as one expert on the subject has observed, phone calls make a “much stronger” impact on Congress. They’re relatively rare, and the human touch sets them apart.

You can also visit our Fast Track America campaign page to learn more about the opportunity in DC, see which elected officials have already pledged their support and ask your mayor or an organization to endorse federal funding for high-speed rail.

A four-track update

HSRA is using a “four-track” model to help clarify and keep tabs on all the rail-related action in D.C. But note that some of these legislative tracks might merge into a single bill during the legislative process. It’s also possible that some of the bills will fail to pass. 

With those caveats in mind, here’s a roundup and big-picture view of what’s going on.

Track 1: The bipartisan infrastructure bill
Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) who is pushing to secure significant funding for high-speed rail.

On Wednesday, July 29, the Biden administration and a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators announced agreement on details of a roughly $1 trillion infrastructure package, which includes $550 billion in new federal investments. Later in the day, the Senate voted 67-32 to proceed with debate on the bill. The bill’s “once-in-a-generation” investments would “enhance our competitiveness, create good jobs, and make our economy more sustainable, resilient, and just,” according to a White House statement.

The infrastructure bill provides for the largest federal investment in public transit ever. It would do the same for Amtrak, positioning it to “play a central role in our transportation and economic future.”

Specifically, the $66 billion in passenger rail funding would go toward eliminating its maintenance backlog, modernizing the Northeast Corridor, and bringing “world-class rail service to areas outside the northeast and mid-Atlantic.” The bill’s $39 billion for public transit would go toward modernizing bus and rail fleets, making stations more accessible, and bringing service to more communities.

Additionally, the bill includes a $12 billion fund that can be invested in high-speed rail systems, which would be the largest investment in HSR in U.S. history.

Negotiators will continue to work on details this week. The Senate is in recess in August. The bipartisan agreement and Wednesday’s Senate vote suggest momentum for the bill’s passage. But the details—and the bill’s ultimate fate—remain uncertain. Final passage will require at least 60 votes, since the bill faces a filibuster by GOP Senators opposed to it. The House of Representatives must also approve it, and leadership there might insist on changes.

One of the most promising developments related to HSR is a push by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-NY) to secure significantly more funding for high-speed trains in the Northeast Corridor (NEC). Sen. Murphy noted last week that the infrastructure bill’s proposed spending on high-speed rail in the NEC—$30 billion—falls short of the amount needed just to repair the existing infrastructure.

“If you really want to get high-speed rail, you really want to dramatically reduce the amount of time that it takes to get from Hartford into New York City, then we need to do better than what's in the bipartisan agreement,” Murphy said. “We have been building a coalition inside the Senate to push for increased rail funding, and we're doing it because we know that more rail funding equals more jobs.” On Facebook in mid-July, Murphy wrote that “we act like fast, reliable rail is a pipe dream, but in reality, it’s within reach—if we just make the right investments.”

Murphy will be working to increase high-speed rail funding through Budget Reconciliation.

Track 2: The “reconciliation” bill
Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) argued for more funding for HSR in the infrastructure package being debated in Congress at a press conference in June.

Sens. Murphy and Blumenthal are two influential voices in a much larger initiative. Their home states belong to a consortium of 8 states and 9 transit providers that are pushing a 15-year, $117 billion proposal to improve train service throughout the northeast. For example, it would create new high-speed corridors between New Haven, CT, and Providence, RI, and between Baltimore and Washington D.C.

While Murphy and Blumenthal are pushing for more funding for railroads in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, a second potential funding source is the “reconciliation” bill that Democrats are working on separately. Senate rules allow budget reconciliation bills to pass with only 50 votes—and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), the key Democratic swing vote, has signaled his support for some version of a reconciliation bill.

Senate Democrats announced last week that they had come to an agreement on a basic plan. It would spend a reported $3.5 trillion across a variety of sectors, including not only transportation initiatives but climate change and child care programs. Details will evolve as Senate negotiators continue their work and the House weighs in with its own priorities over the next few weeks.

One proposal that will help shape the negotiations, in addition to the Northeast Corridor’s push for big investments in rail, is a bill by Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) that proposes to invest $205 billion in high-speed rail over 5 years. Moulton is part of a coalition of 80 lawmakers who recently called on Congress to include high-speed rail in the “transformational investments” that Congress is currently debating.

Track 3: The Surface Transportation Authorization bill
The chairman of the House’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), has emerged as a key advocate for bigger investments in trains and for transformed, pro-railroad transportation policies.

The 2015 authorization bill that’s currently in effect—called the Fast Act—was set to expire 2020. Congress extended it for a year due to the pandemic.

Although this bill doesn’t actually allocate funds (which is a separate process), it sets spending priorities and establishes the policies that govern the nation’s transportation systems.

In early June, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed a $547 billion authorization bill, called the INVEST In America Act. The bill proposes $109 billion for transit and $95 billion for passenger and freight-rail funding. Amtrak’s authorization would triple, to $32 billion.

Meanwhile, a Senate committee approved the Surface Transportation Investment Act of 2021, which included $78 billion (over 5 years) for the nation’s passenger-rail and freight-rail networks. Amtrak’s share would be $25 billion.

Details of a final bill will be worked out by House and Senate negotiators and is due by Sept. 30.

In addition to establishing spending priorities, the authorization bill creates transportation policy. The House’s version (the INVEST Act) includes key changes to policy that would promote railroad development.

Specifically, it would create new barriers for states to spend federal dollars on constructing new roads, and it would shift some power to cities (whose leadership tends to be friendly to public transit and railroad projects) over states in deciding which projects get built.

The House bill would also give Amtrak more leverage in asserting its priority status on tracks owned by the freight railroads.

The chairman of the House’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), has emerged as a key advocate for bigger investments in trains and for transformed, pro-railroad transportation policies.

“We have to begin to look at alternatives” to the status quo, DeFazio told Politico in a piece published this week. “You can’t pave over the whole country.”

Track 4: The FY 2022 budget appropriations bill

Simultaneous with all of this, Congress is working on the FY 2022 federal budget. As with the infrastructure and reconciliation bills, the implications for trains are in flux. The budget is due by Sept. 30.

On Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee released summaries of several appropriations bills that will be considered next week, including the Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies (THUD) bill.

The THUD bill proposes significant increases to rail-related funding on several fronts. For example, the Federal Railroad Administration would receive $4.1 billion (an increase of $1.3 billion over FY 2021); Amtrak would receive $2.7 billion (an increase of $700 million); and the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements program would receive $500 million (an increase of $125 million).

The budget also appropriates $625 million for the new Passenger Rail Improvement, Modernization, and Expansion grant program, which supports “projects that improve, expand, or establish passenger rail service.”

The Bottom Line

As these bills move through Congress over the days and weeks ahead, your actions can make a huge difference to the future of transportation in the U.S.

Email and call your representatives right now and tell them to push for investments—and policies—that create a sustainable transportation paradigm.

Tell them you want better transit systems and a national network of fast, frequent trains that  meets the economic and environmental challenges of the twenty-first century.

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