Biden unveils $53bn high-speed rail plan

Vice President Joe Biden proposed a six-year plan for US high-speed rail that immediately prompted a sceptical response from House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, who called Amtrak, the government-owned rail carrier, a ‘Soviet-style train system’ incapable of providing the US with a modern high-speed rail system.

Vice President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood have unveiled a $53 billion, six-year plan to build high-speed rail in the US.  The proposal would develop high-speed rail networks in conjunction with states, freight rail and private companies. 

The White House said in a statement the new proposal “will open the door to new public-private partnerships, and attract significant private investment in developing and operating passenger rail corridors”.

Joe Biden

The White House proposal split high-speed rail into three sections: “core express” networks with trains travelling up to 250 miles per hour; regional corridors with slower train that will be “laying the foundation for future high-speed service”; and “emerging” sections with even slower trains that connect to national and intercity networks.

The $53 billion follows $10.5 billion that has already been committed to high-speed rail during President Barack Obama’s first two years in office.  The stimulus package provided $8 billion and the 2010 budget provided another $2.5 billion.

The White House did not provide details on how the $53 billion would be funded. An initial $8 billion would be provided in the President’s Budget for the government’s next fiscal year, according to a statement.

The plan drew a violent response from House Republicans, who portrayed it as an ill-timed give-away to the government-owned rail carrier Amtrak, even though the White House statement said that the plan would pursue “new” public-private partnerships.

“Government won’t develop American high-speed rail. Private investment and a competitive market will,” Pennsylvania Republican Bill Shuster, who chairs the House railroads subcommittee, said in a statement.

John Mica, the Florida Republican who became House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman after Minnesota Democrat James Oberstar lost his seat last November, was even harsher. He described Amtrak as a “Soviet-style train system” that was incapable of providing modern, efficient networks. Mica also said the Federal Railroad Administration was ill-equipped to handle the grants process and should not be involved in project selection. 

“This is like giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio,” Mica said in his statement. 

But Mary Ellen Curto, executive director of the American High Speed Rail Alliance, an industry lobby group, saw common ground in the idea of having private sector involvement in high-speed rail.   She said that Mica has advocated for private investment in rail projects, and Curto highlighted the fact that Biden’s proposal specifically mentioned such partnerships.  

“The idea is to get $1.5 to $3 trillion of private equity on the sidelines into the infrastructure game,” Curto added, saying that the new proposal made her optimistic about “including that as part of the solution”.

Gateway project

In related news, two Democratic senators from New Jersey outlined plans for two new rail tunnels between the populous states of New York and New Jersey.  The project is expected to cost $13.5 billion and to be completed by 2020, according to a statement. 

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie pulled the plug on a previous tunnel plan, claiming that it would be too costly for the state.

Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez announced the “Gateway Project” jointly with Amtrak chief executive Joe Boardman and Anthony Coscia, former chairman of the New York/New Jersey Port Authority.  David Samson replaced Coscia as chairman of the Authority last week, but Coscia still serves on the Authority’s board, as well as on the board of Amtrak. 

Coscia fielded questions about the tunnel at the CG/LA Global Infrastructure Leadership Forum in New York last month.  He said the Port Authority had successfully raised $3 billion for the tunnel before Governor Christie decided to cancel the project.  Coscia added that the Authority was “reinvesting” the unused funds in other projects that would “add to the region’s transportation strength”. 

Amtrak said it would spend $50 million on preliminary engineering and design of the Gateway tunnels.