Is the bipartisan infrastructure bill truly transformational for train travel?

Mass transit and Amtrak both set for a record level of funding
Passenger Rail Proposal
Posted at 4:59 PM, Aug 05, 2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The bipartisan infrastructure bill continues to progress in the United States Senate. A final vote could take place this weekend.

For months, you’ve heard politicians and transportation leaders make the case that now is the time to revolutionize train travel.

The bipartisan bill certainly allocates money in the direction of mass transit and Amtrak.

It invests $39 billion over five years into mass transit, like commuter trains and buses. It also allocates $66 billion for passenger rail, mostly Amtrak.

Both represent an unrepresented amount of funds for those transportation sectors.

But just how transformational is this bipartisan infrastructure deal when it comes to train travel? It depends on who you ask.

"If you ask the question, 'Is more needed?' Absolutely more is needed. Public transit has been underfunded for decades," Paul Skoutelas said.

Skoutelas is the President of the American Public Transportation Association. He advocates for more commuter trains and buses in neighborhoods like yours.

He says rough estimates have put the maintenance backlog for mass transit at $105 billion nationwide. This bill provides only $39 billion.

If the bill becomes law, balancing maintenance needs with the desire for new projects to transform commutes will be tricky.

"Is this enough investment? No, it’s not, but we will take it. It’s significantly important to get us in the right direction," Skoutelas said.

Those who lobby on behalf of Amtrak, though, see things a bit differently.

"Before we get to the financial numbers, what’s even more important are the policy changes," John Robert Smith said.

Smith is with Transportation for America and is a past chairman of the board of directors for Amtrak.

He says the infrastructure bill changes the mission of Amtrak dramatically. Instead of being looked at as a business by the government, it’s now considered a service responsible for connecting big cities with small towns.

"It's a fundamental change in what the mission has been over the last 10 years," Smith said.

But what about the Amtrak proposal released earlier this year to create new routes around the country like Las Vegas to Los Angeles or Colorado Springs to Denver?

"I think the funds provided in the Senate bipartisan bill are significant enough to make vast changes," Smith said.

But Smith thinks the Amtrak map proposal will quickly be redrawn if the infrastructure bill becomes law.

That’s because President Joe Biden, under the bill, will have the ability to appoint all new Amtrak board members who will likely reevaluate everything.

While Smith says this bill can create new routes. Don’t expect super-fast bullet trains like the ones in Japan. There just isn’t enough cash for that.

"You aren’t going to accomplish transformational high-speed rail in a five-year bill," Smith said.

The bipartisan bill does include funds to improve Acela speeds in the Northeast corridor.

While some say the bipartisan infrastructure deal could have included more money, many conservatives in Congress are frustrated because they believe the bill has too much government spending in it, raising the risk for inflation.

A recent analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found the bill will contribute $256 billion to the deficit over the next decade.