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Amtrak’s proposed $80 billion windfall: Too much or too little?

Critics and advocates for a passenger rail network that rivals China or Europe both say it’s not enough

An Amtrak passenger train near Valentine, Texas on April 10.
An Amtrak passenger train near Valentine, Texas on April 10. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The $80 billion that President Joe Biden proposes to give Amtrak over eight years in his $2 trillion infrastructure proposal would be a windfall for an enterprise that typically receives $2 billion from the federal government per year.

But both critics and those who share Biden’s goal of a high-quality national network of passenger rail — one that rivals systems in China or Europe — say it’s not enough.

“It’s a massive number, and we’re a massive country and it is not enough to ensure that every corridor that benefits from high-speed rail service is going to get significant funding,” said Adie Tomer, the head of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the moderate Brookings Institution.

[What’s in Biden’s infrastructure investment, corporate tax plan]

Biden’s plan can’t, for example, fully pay for a nationwide investment in high-speed rail, the repair backlog the Amtrak system faces and build out the comprehensive national network the federally supported passenger railroad wants.

“If you go too small, there’s no way the money is enough,” said David Ditch, a research associate at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “If you go too big, you’ve got to get a big return on your investment.”

As Congress begins to weigh Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan, how that $80 billion for passenger rail would be spent will be an important question. 

That much became evident last week when the House Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee grilled Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about the Biden proposal. Five lawmakers asked about the administration’s plans for rail during the hearing.

“Can you help me, give me some context behind the benefits of this kind of expense for what I believe is certainly not a population that I represent?” asked Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark. 

California project

Others, such as Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., cautioned Buttigieg from spending tax dollars on California’s controversial high-speed rail project, saying the project is more than a decade behind schedule, and costs $100 billion after initial estimates put it at $33 billion. “I will go on the record as high-speed rail in California will not help our traffic problems,” he said.

Amtrak this month released an ambitious map that included more than 30 new routes and more frequent service over 20 lines. The rail company said it could serve up to 160 new communities across the country over the next 15 years. Their plan, however, is not necessarily Biden’s plan, which hasn’t been unveiled beyond the top-line figure for passenger rail.

Buttigieg argues that expanding rail would lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions as people increasingly viewed it as a viable alternative to automobiles. It would also lead Americans to realize that they, too, could have a world-class passenger rail system.

The proposed $80 billion investment, Buttigieg said, presents a “historic opportunity to set up some of the routes that will help to not only open up the specific transportation possibilities where those routes lie but also just demonstrate that America could lead the world in this if we chose to by beginning to actually do it.

 “Seeing, I think, is often believing,” he said. 

The proposal comes after Congress spent $3.5 billion to keep Amtrak solvent during the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused a steep decline in ridership. The Biden administration has also increased its budget request for Amtrak in fiscal 2022, asking for $2.7 billion and a new $625 million passenger rail grant program.

While rail advocates praise the proposal as a much-needed spark to create the next rail Renaissance, critics dismiss the proposal as an unjustifiable boondoggle.

David Ditch, a Heritage Foundation research associate, said bus service and airplanes have been sufficient in providing non-automotive alternatives to travel from city to city.  

He questioned the notion of adding rail to places like Cheyenne, Wyo., or Duluth, Minn., or Montgomery, Ala. “None of these lines are going to be anywhere near self-sustaining,” he said. “It’s not like someone in Rockland, Maine, wants to travel to Auburn, Ala., or Pueblo, Colo., (by train). If you’re going to go these incredibly long distances, you’re going to fly.”

Moving the needle

“No amount of subsidization is ever going to move the needle on the demand for intercity rail,” he said.

Marc Joffe, a senior policy analyst with the Reason Foundation said he doubts that rail will be a game-changer for climate change. A high-speed rail project could take between 10 and 15 years to build, and “during that time you’re actually generating greenhouse gases” because of the construction process. 

“I just think there are more cost-effective ways of dealing with climate change than building behemoth systems where we’re not going to see the benefits for a long time,” he said.

Still, rail may represent an area in the infrastructure plan where bipartisanship is possible. Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., have expressed support for Amtrak’s long-distance routes, which were cut last year during the pandemic. 

“There’s something to be said for incentivizing and increasing capacity,” said Wicker, ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “But it does seem like a very large sum and we are really, sincerely so far lacking in details.”

John Robert Smith, the chairman of Transportation for America and a former member of the Amtrak board, said the $80 billion would be best spent building “a connected national system,” that links small and medium cities without forcing people to use automobiles.

“This isn’t about nostalgia,” he said. “It’s about economic development.”

While he wants to see Amtrak’s routes expanded, Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, said if Biden’s proposal works to address the backlog and add service to Amtrak, that “would be pretty transformative in and of itself.”

“Would it be cool to have a network of high-speed trains crossing the country in various places? Sure, absolutely, of course it would,” he said. “But I think a little transformation goes a long way.”

Others, such as Tomer, argue that the proposal provides an ideal opportunity to expand high-speed rail.

There’s a demonstrated appetite for such projects: During the 2009 Recovery Act, Congress approved $10 billion in funding for high-speed rail projects. In the end, Buttigieg said, 39 states requested nearly $75 billion in funding. “We know there’s support, we know there’s interest, we know there’s potential,” he said.

While Tomer said he was skeptical the proposed $80 billion would go, for example, to the California high-speed project, it could create smaller projects, such as a high-speed project in Florida connecting downtown Tampa to Disney World. 

The route, he said, would cost about $2 billion and demonstrate to tourists from all over the country the benefits of high-speed rail. “Florida is perfect for this,” he said. 

A privately-funded inter-city railway, Brightline, is already building a high-speed line between Miami and Orlando. Some Florida lawmakers say they’d prefer such projects be paid for by business rather than by taxpayers. 

“I like the private sector doing these things,” said Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla.

But Ditch said if Biden were serious about building a high-speed rail system in the U.S., he’d be investing far more money than his plan calls for.

“There’s no universe where $80 billion is moving the needle on high-speed rail in a country of this size,” he said.

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