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High-speed routes biggest winners in latest rail funding round

Republicans predict big expenditures will end in a 'boondoggle'

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said recent rail investments are the largest since Amtrak was created.
Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said recent rail investments are the largest since Amtrak was created. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The White House on Friday announced $8.2 billion for 10 passenger rail projects across the country, including more than $6 billion for high-speed rail projects in California and Nevada.

The money, authorized by the 2021 infrastructure law, comes from the Federal Railroad Administration’s Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail Program.

As part of the announcement, an additional $34.5 million for planning and development of new passenger rail projects across the country, also authorized by the law, will come from the Corridor Identification and Development program. 

Many Democrats in Congress had already unveiled the funding for various projects in their districts prior to the announcement, touting the jobs and reduced passenger vehicle emissions. 

“Railroads made America a force in commerce and innovation in the world, uniting the country, building the most powerful economy ever in the history of the world. And over time, though, we fell behind,” President Joe Biden said in a Friday speech in Las Vegas. “At long last, we’re building the first high-speed rail project in our nation’s history.”

“The U.S. has lagged behind other nations when it comes to passenger rail,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a call with reporters prior to the announcement. “Any American who has traveled to other developed countries has likely seen how differently countries in places like Europe and East Asia approach passenger rail … we’re now making the largest investment in passenger rail since Amtrak was created in the first place.”

The California Inaugural High-Speed Rail Service Project will receive the most funding at $3.1 billion, which includes phased funding agreements. The funds are expected to go toward the route from Merced to Bakersfield, Calif., which backers say will feature trains reaching speeds of up to 220 miles per hour, the White House infrastructure adviser, Mitch Landrieu, told reporters.

The project has drawn opposition from House Republicans, who included in their fiscal 2024 Transportation and Housing and Urban Development departments spending bill a provision that would block DOT from spending annual appropriations and infrastructure law funds on the project. The White House cited the provision in its statement opposing the bill.

“If you want to look in the dictionary, under the word ‘boondoggle,’ you would probably find the California high-speed rail project process,” Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., said on the floor last week. “They’re gonna seek more and more federal funding for what used to be a $33 billion project and that will be a $128 billion project.”

The White House estimates the project servicing the segment from Merced to Bakersfield will cost a total of $33 billion, according to materials accompanying Friday’s announcement.

It’s not the first time the GOP has tried to claw back federal funding from the project. The Trump administration announced in 2019 it was terminating a federal agreement to provide nearly $1 billion after the California High-Speed Rail Authority “failed to make reasonable progress on the project,” the administration said in a statement. The Biden administration restored the funding in 2021.

Biden administration officials said that they are confident the funds for the California project will be put to good use, adding that each project was deeply scrutinized.

California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Brian Kelly said Friday on a call with reporters that the $3.1 billion will keep the project on schedule, adding that it “couldn’t be done without this investment.”

“Yes, it’s going to cost some money, you can’t predict it exactly,” former California Governor Jerry Brown, who also spoke on the call, said. “The fact that the president, with all these experts, have felt it appropriate to put up billions of dollars — that’s a big vote of confidence.”

Nevada’s Brightline West High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail System Project is also set to receive up to $3 billion, including phased funding agreements. The new route is expected to take passengers from Las Vegas to Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., within two hours and 10 minutes — a trip that typically takes over three and a half hours by car.

“For decades, Nevadans have heard about the benefits of high-speed rail, and I’m proud to have led the charge for months to push the U.S. Department of Transportation to secure critical funding to make this a reality,” Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., said Tuesday in a statement about the funding.

A project connecting Raleigh, N.C., to Richmond, Va., will receive $1.1 billion. Funding will also go toward projects to update the Chicago, Ill., Union Station platform and improve rail track in Maine, among others.

The $34.5 million in CID funding will go to 69 rail corridors across 44 states, according to the White House, including high-speed and conventional passenger rail projects.

The CID funding recipients include a new rail corridor connecting Fort Collins and Pueblo, Colo.; a new high-speed rail project linking Oregon, Washington and Vancouver, B.C.; and expansions in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin.

The announcement comes on the heels of $16.4 billion in funding announced last month for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. This round of funding is the second since House leaders had to delay consideration of a fiscal 2024 DOT, HUD spending bill due to disagreements among Republicans over its proposed 64 percent cut to Amtrak from fiscal 2023.

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