A White House administration under Democratic President-elect Joe Biden could see renewed support for passenger rail, given Biden’s previous support of Amtrak and high-speed rail.
The first several months of a Biden administration could focus on passenger rail since the COVID-19 pandemic drastically cut ridership levels, which in turn has raised concerns about service cuts, including those for Amtrak. Biden has also been considered an avid supporter of passenger rail, earning the nickname “Amtrak Joe” for the years he’s traveled using Amtrak.
Should Biden continue to support passenger rail as he assumes the presidency, it could also benefit freight rail indirectly in situations where federal monies are spent on projects that support both passenger and freight rail. But how a Biden administration might deal with freight rail remains to be seen, according to industry observers.
The Coalition for the Northeast Corridor (CNEC) said it hopes the administration of Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will result in renewed support of rail infrastructure needs.
“CNEC congratulates President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris for being elected as the Nation’s 46th President and Vice President of the United States,” said CNEC Executive Director Mike Friedberg. The coalition is a group of business and university interests that seeks to “strengthen” rail infrastructure in the U.S. Northeast. The group represents end-users of the passenger rail network in the Northeast.
Specifically, CNEC would like to see expanding eligibility for grants that provide funding to improve passenger rail in the region, such as the Federal-State Partnership for the State of Good Repair as well as Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing. CNEC also advocates for additional funding for these programs. The group also said it recognizes the importance of funding the Gateway Project, which would expand and renovate the rail line between Newark, New Jersey, and New York City.
“We look forward to working with the Biden/Harris Administration to improve the safety and efficiency of mass passenger rail infrastructure, allocating much needed resources and attention to areas along the Northeast Corridor, including its dilapidated tunnels, and building out new infrastructure to increase capacity,” Friedberg said.
The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) also lent its support to Biden and Harris, saying Saturday, “Investment in public transit is a bipartisan issue, and APTA will continue to work with Republicans and Democrats alike in Congress to build a public transportation infrastructure that is the pride of the nation and rebuilds our economy. … In addition, the U.S. public transportation industry stands ready to work with President-elect Biden, Vice President-elect Harris, and the new Congress in a unified push to move our country forward and build the public transportation infrastructure of the future.”
Meanwhile, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division (BMWED) of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters acknowledged that a Republican-majority Senate and a Biden White House could result in situations where both parties “will not often see eye-to-eye” on issues such as health care reform, national funding for rail projects and increases in the minimum wage.
But the union still hoped that a Biden administration would support Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and California’s high-speed rail authority, as well as address such issues that would “buoy workers instead of railroad management.”
“We look forward to President Biden refocusing support for workers and fulfilling the hollow promises of former-President Trump and the Republican Party,” BMWED said Tuesday. “We will press President Biden and his administration, Democrats in both Houses, and, yes, Republicans too, to govern America with focus on its workers, a strengthened job security, an eye to better wages, to stronger, more affordable health care, greater pension security and a focus on safety at the work place.”
Freight rail’s response
Indeed, although it’s too soon to tell how a Biden administration will grapple with the needs and wants of the passenger and freight rail industry, one area that could see continued support is the grants programs offered by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration.
Existing grants such as the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program and the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grants either support freight rail directly or indirectly because the federal grants are usually for places where the infrastructure is aging or where there’s a need to relieve congestion or improve traffic flow between freight and passenger rail and between rail and other transportation modes.
“We welcome the opportunity to work with a Biden-led administration and Congress to ensure that the U.S. freight rail system remains the envy of the world, providing safe, affordable, environmentally-friendly service that connects small town and rural America to U.S. and overseas markets,” said Chuck Baker, president of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA).
“Whether it is through the Short Line Railroad Investment Tax Credit that aids all Class II and III railroads in capital upgrades, federal discretionary grant programs such as the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure Safety Improvements Act, and safety initiatives such as the Short Line Safety Institute, the ASLRRA and our nearly 1000 railroad and supplier members look forward to collaborating on transportation initiatives that drive our industry forward,” Baker said.
Meanwhile, other questions, such as whether the Surface Transportation Board will add more members or what Congress’ level of involvement should be in freight rail service issues, could take longer to address should passenger rail issues take the forefront.
In the meantime, the freight rail industry is taking a wait-and-see approach to the incoming administration.
“On behalf of the entire industry, congratulations to President-elect Biden on his victory,” said Ian Jefferies, president of the Association of American Railroads. “The President-elect is no stranger to America’s railroads, and the freight rail industry looks forward to working with his new administration to advance our shared goals including getting Americans back to work, strengthening the economy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
Jefferies continued, “The challenges his new Administration and our nation face are great, but the freight railroads want to be — and must be — part of the solution.”