Biden Is Good News for High-Speed Rail

The President-elect loves rail, but he still needs the Senate to get it funded... and that may come down to election results in Georgia

A concrete pour for CAHSRA's Poso Creek viaduct this summer. Photo: CAHSRA
A concrete pour for CAHSRA's Poso Creek viaduct this summer. Photo: CAHSRA

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“Amtrak-Joe” Biden, arguably the U.S. Government’s biggest supporter of rail, will be the 46th President. Supporters of California’s High-Speed Rail project and rail transportation have reason to celebrate. As a Politico reporter put it on twitter:

When he was vice-president, Biden masterminded the HSR component of the 2009 stimulus package, which ended up channeling $3.5 billion to California’s project to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles. Coupled with matching funds from the state, and that’s why there’s now over 100 miles of track under construction, plus improvements to related rail projects all over the state.

“Clearly, having Biden in the White House is highly beneficial for rail,” said Andy Kunz, President & CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association.

Vice President Joe Biden and then Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood riding Amtrak in 2011 while traveling from Washington, DC to Philadelphia, PA in 2011. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)
Vice President Joe Biden and then Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood riding Amtrak in 2011. Official White House Photo by David Lienemann

However, there was no new funding for HSR from D.C. after 2011, when a new Republican congress cut it off. Then the Trump Administration worked to sabotage California’s HSR construction through multiple means including lawsuits and attempted clawbacks of previously committed federal funds. Trump, working with congressional Republicans–some from California–even tried to hold up funds for Caltrain’s electrification project, simply because HSR would eventually use the same tracks.

But with a new stimulus bill in the works, California may finally see another round of funding for the project–possibly giving it the money it needs to build new tracks from L.A. to Bakersfield, finally allowing trains to travel all the way from the Bay Area directly to the City of Angels.

“They want to combat climate change, build infrastructure, and build good, union paying jobs,” said a source close to California’s project about the incoming Biden Administration. “Just having a cooperative federal partner that believes in the value of the system is massively important and will be a welcome change.”

Of course, whether or not Biden will be able to quickly fund his rail ambitions will depend to some extent on the results of Georgia’s two Senate races, which are still in flux and will determine which political party has the majority in the upper house. “With Senate victories in January in Georgia we could see significant progress on California High Speed Rail,” said Dennis Lytton, an activist with the Rail Passengers Association and an expert in rail operations and safety.

Lytton cautions that if the Senate remains under Republican control–with Mitch McConnell leading the majority–HSR construction in California could be hobbled.

Amtrak's new HSR set for the Northeast Corridor. It will be harder to stop HSR projects, with so much concrete poured and trains capable of 220 mph, such as Amtrak's nw Acela seen here during tests in Colorado, now running in the U.S. Image: Amtrak
It will be harder for a Republican-controlled Senate to stop California’s HSR project, now that so much concrete is poured and trains capable of 220 mph, such as the Avelia Liberty seen here during tests in Colorado, are now running in the U.S. Image: Amtrak

The California High-Speed Rail Authority did not immediately provide its position on moving the project forward under a Biden Administration. However, Streetsblog’s source close to the project said even if the Republicans hold onto a slim majority in the Senate it would still be workable. “It’s not as if the project is theoretical, like it was with the stimulus in 2009. We’re under construction, moving every inch of the program forward,” said the source. “Georgia matters, maybe, but I don’t know what senators are necessarily going to take an ‘anti’ position directly on a project in another state.”

Meaning as long as HSR can be bundled with projects that Republicans want for their states, there’s no reason to think billions of stimulus funds can’t also be made available for HSR, especially with the House still majority Democrat and the White House with an actively pro-rail administration. “Everything has changed with this election,” said Kunz. “I don’t think the Senate is going to be able to stand in the way of American progress like they were.”

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