Rail emerged as a major winner in the 2021 infrastructure law, backed by a president whose regular train travel earned him the nickname “Amtrak Joe.” Congress approved tens of billions in funding to update a passenger network that lags behind those in many European and Asian nations, even as some lawmakers have faulted the administration for being too focused on the Northeast, where the bulk of rail passengers live. It comes as a transportation funding bill being considered by House Republicans would reduce some rail funding.
Northeast’s century-old rail bridges, tunnels land $9 billion overhaul
Of the 25 projects the White House announced will receive funding, Amtrak will receive about $10 billion, with the rest shared by states and transit agencies that help maintain the corridor. Some money is available now while other funding is promised for future budget years.
The projects include up to $2.1 billion to replace the Susquehanna River bridge in Maryland, $1.6 billion for upgrades to rail lines in New York City and $827 million for the replacement of a bridge over the Connecticut River.
“Under President Biden, we are finally delivering the generational investments in passenger rail that Americans have wanted for years, including modernizing the busiest rail corridor in the country,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement.
Amtrak officials say construction on the projects should be completed over five to 15 years, while the White House said the investments will provide faster and more reliable service. The Baltimore tunnel, for example, will allow trains to travel up to 110 mph through a stretch where speeds are limited to 30 mph.
Plans call for reducing the travel time between Washington and New York by 30 minutes, plus the same reduction between New York and Boston. The White House said the new infrastructure could cut delays almost in half.
President Biden will travel Monday to the town of Bear in his home state of Delaware to meet with Amtrak workers and deliver a speech on the funding.
Amtrak was hit hard by the spread of the coronavirus but has ended pre-pandemic passenger counts since the summer, saying the new funding will fuel more growth.
“These grants will help advance Amtrak’s plans to modernize the Northeast Corridor and unlock major bottlenecks on the busiest passenger rail corridor in America,” Amtrak chief executive Stephen Gardner said in a statement.
In addition to tackling aging infrastructure, Amtrak also plans to roll out a fleet of faster trains being manufactured at a plant in Upstate New York.
The money announced Monday comes on top of billions in other funding previously announced across the Northeast. The Hudson River Tunnel is part of a broader overhaul of the connections between New York and New Jersey, known as Gateway, and is one of the nation’s largest infrastructure projects. In all, the federal government has committed $11 billion to the tunnel, with connected projects set to receive additional funding.
On Friday, Buttigieg joined New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to mark the beginning of construction on the long-planned tunnel.
“For 30 years, Americans, travelers, businesses, workers have been hoping for this day,” Hochul said. “But years of inaction, excuses, delays and the infighting are finally over. “We’re now heralding in a new era of working not against each other but working together to accomplish great things.”
The infrastructure package puts $66 billion into rail. It could power the biggest expansion in Amtrak’s 50-year history.
The New York project has been a target of Republicans, held up for years by a dispute between its sponsors and the Trump administration. Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), the Republican leader on the committee that oversees rail, said the infrastructure law money was not intended to “backfill the Gateway Program moneypit.”
“The Biden administration continues to unfairly divert taxpayer dollars away from the majority of the country to bloated, over-budget, blue-state projects,” Cruz said in a statement.
Amtrak has plans to use funding from the infrastructure law to expand service outside its core Northeast Corridor lines. The administration plans to announce funding from a separate rail program targeting other areas of the country before the end of the year.
The rail network’s plan calls for reaching 160 new communities across the country, attracting as many as 20 million more passengers. Supporters say Amtrak has failed to keep up with population growth, leaving its service map largely unchanged across its half-century history as metro areas have boomed in states like Texas and Florida.