Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris officially became President-elect and Vice President-elect on Saturday, which signals a shift from a car-centric, anti-city administration to a clean slate.

Questions continue to swirl over whether a Biden-Harris administration will govern as progressives or rubber stamps for corporate interests and the centrist establishment. Biden made his career as a moderate and was an author of the controversial 1994 crime bill that accelerated mass incarceration, particularly of Blacks and Latinos. That said, there is little doubt that President-elect Biden loves trains and will seek much more rail funding than his predecessor.

Amtrak–America’s cash-strapped federal passenger rail agency–took note and pointed toward stimulus funding in a congratulatory press release.

“Amtrak looks forward to working with President-elect Biden and Congress,” Amtrak president Bill Flynn said. “To get the economy moving and help Amtrak and our employees through this unprecedented situation, Congress must act now on pandemic relief and economic stimulus funding which enable Amtrak to recall furloughed employees, restore service frequency on long-distance and state-supported routes, and make investments that will advance critical capital projected such as bridges and tunnels on the Northeast Corridor and new equipment, infrastructure improvements and major station upgrades throughout the network.”

Amtrak CEO Flynn also stressed how rail investment aligns with climate action.

“As we look to the future, expanded Amtrak service is essential to decarbonizing our transportation network, which generates roughly 28% of the U.S. annual carbon emissions,” Flynn said. “With cars and trucks responsible for nearly 82% of those emissions, we need passenger rail alternatives throughout the nation.”

We covered Biden’s campaign promises on high-speed rail and climate, and that pledge has also made it into Biden’s transition website: “Provide every American city with 100,000 or more residents with high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options through flexible federal investments with strong labor protections that create good, union jobs and meet the needs of these cities–ranging from light rail networks to improving existing transit and bus lines to installing infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists.”

The commitment to expanding and electrifying transit in large cities could make the difference in realizing King County Metro’s long-term vision for filling out the RapidRide alphabet from A to Z and electrifying its bus fleet by 2040. Federal assistance could also help Sound Transit meets its timelines and unfreeze projects despite the recession. Many other regional transit agencies are likely looking to capitalize similarly on the sudden appearance of a willing and motivated federal partner.

Biden’s campaign plan set ambitious long-term high-speed rail goals with near-term benchmarks.

“He’ll start by putting the Northeast Corridor on higher speeds and shrinking the travel time from D.C. to New York by half–and build in conjunction with it a new, safer Hudson River Tunnel,” the plan said. “He will make progress toward the completion of the California High Speed Rail project. He will expand the Northeast Corridor to the fast-growing South. Across the Midwest and the Great West, he will begin the construction of an end-to-end high speed rail system that will connect the coasts, unlocking new, affordable access for every American.”

The red lines are federally designated high speed corridors while the gray lines are conventional rail. (Federal Transit Adminstration)

The Northeast Corridor is far and away Amtrak’s highest ridership corridor so it makes sense to build off it, speeding up the corridor and the slower lines to the south connecting to it. High-speed rail from Washington, D.C. to Richmond, Charlotte, and Atlanta makes sense both from a service standpoint and political one, delivering on a campaign promise to a part of the nation increasingly important to the Democrats’ coalition. Improvements and right-of-away acquisition are already in motion for the Richmond segment.

In Cascadia, Governor Jay Inslee overwhelmingly winning re-election primes the state for a push to convert the Amtrak Cascades corridor to high-speed rail. The Inslee administration has already been pushing high-speed rail and it now has a national partner. The groundwork is being laid with regional talks and studies, including a governance structure study underway that could guide the partnership between Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and the private sector.

Route through Congress

While Biden’s going to end up with a decisive win by an overwhelming five-million-vote margin and 306 electoral votes, control of the United States Senate hangs in the balance of runoff elections for Georgia two seats. Democrats also coughed up about five House seats in net, but retain control of the chamber. If those Georgia runoffs go well, Biden would have a Democratic-controlled senate to work with, too, but that’s a big if. But even without it, Biden may be able to strongarm some infrastructure funding through Covid-19 relief and economic stimulus bills.

A whistle stop tour via Amtrak train was part of Biden’s closing argument down the stretch. (Credit: Biden for President)

Rep. Peter DiFazio (D-Oregon)–who serves as House Transportation Chair–issued a statement backing Biden’s infrastructure plans.

“The President-elect has made it clear he is ready to work with Congress to deliver results for all Americans with bold investments in infrastructure that help everyone, from large metro areas dealing with unreliable transit and soon to be jam-packed highways, to rural communities that suffer from bridges in poor condition and deteriorating roads,” Chair DiFazio said. “And of course, ‘Amtrak Joe’ and I share the goals of a robust national rail network and turning the transportation sector—the number one contributor to carbon pollution in the U.S.—into one that is clean, efficient, reliable and resilient to extreme weather events. President-elect Biden plans to ‘Build Back Better,’ and that’s exactly what our Nation needs to move our infrastructure into the 21st century while creating millions of family wage jobs, supporting U.S. manufacturing, and harnessing American engineering and ingenuity. I can’t wait to get started.”

Rep. DiFazio had seemed more lukewarm on high speed rail at the Cascadia Corridor conference Challenge Seattle hosted last year, seeming to save his enthusiasm for hyperloops, autonomous cars, and other tech foibles. It’s good to see the rail focus now, and DiFazio’s is likely to have help from colleague Seth Moulton (D-Massachusetts) in furthering Biden’s rail goals. Rep. Moulton proposed a stimulus bill with $205 billion in high-speed rail funding.

DiFazio noted Trump had not delivered on his lofty promises and let the nation’s infrastructure continue to crumble and transit to languish.

“That’s why earlier this year, after President Trump stormed out of what was to be our final bipartisan meeting, I went ahead without the White House and wrote a transformational bill that would finally move our infrastructure out of the 1950s and into the modern era, so we could start connecting communities and moving goods in ways that are smarter, safer, and made to last. My bill passed the House with bipartisan support this summer, but then, like so many other critical House-passed bills, the Moving Forward Act went nowhere in Mitch McConnell’s do-nothing Senate,” DiFazio said. “That all changes under a Biden administration.”

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a non-profit that depends on donations from readers like you.

Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

16 COMMENTS

  1. “Regional transportation demand is going to rise as each of the three major metros add million+ residents. I-5 can’t handle the load and widening it–even by one lane in each direction–is more expensive ($110 billion!) than building high speed rail ($24 billion -$42 billion). Adding another runway at SeaTac to handle travel demand is pegged at $10 billion. ”

    This idea that Everett will be the next Seattle, and Seattle will be the next Chicago is absurd. We don’t need more lanes on the freeway, nor do we need an additional airport. By the way, regional travel (between these cities) is not why people are pushing for more airport space. It is largely to handle air freight, something that should be taxed out of existence (with an exception clause for medical supplies).

    Oh, and regional air travel — typically taken with propeller jets — will quite likely be converted to electricity relatively soon. It is also a tiny amount of air travel for this area. The vast majority of travel for those three cities will be the same as it is now — to places best served by jet (unfortunately).

    Yes, the three cities are within the “sweet spot” of high speed rail. But that means 110 MPH, not a lot more concrete. Of course it would be cool to be able to get to Vancouver in about an hour. But not that many people will actually do that. It certainly isn’t why I-5 traffic — at any point — is crowded. For every Seattle resident headed to Vancouver, there are a dozen from Marysville or Mount Vernon headed to Seattle or just a few miles up the road. Unlike Europe or Japan, this region is extremely suburban, making city to city rail as challenging as transit.

    As I wrote below, it is quite likely that high speed rail would *add* to global warming. The extra concrete is enormous, and would likely contribute more to the problem than you save. You wouldn’t get that many new riders going from 110 MPH to 200 MPH. As you wrote, many more would take transit (a bus or train) if the cost of driving went up. Then there are people who transition to using an electric car. You are proposing a very large, very expensive, very environmentally damaging solution, when the obvious solution is just to make smaller, cheaper changes. At 110 MPH you pretty much eliminate the bulk of air travel (business), while also putting a huge dent in driving. Oh, and it also uses less electricity.

    If you really want to reduce global warming, we should get the most bang for the buck. From a rail standpoint, that means starting with electrification. Not only of passenger rail, but freight. Eliminate the bottlenecks as we then move more of our shipping to trains. Likewise, make the relatively simple changes that allow trains to go 110 MPH (semi-high speed rail). Things like this: http://theoildrum.com/node/4301

      • The problem with upgrading the existing right-of-way is that it’s shared with freight and isn’t straight enough to approach 110mph in a lot of sections. So while we should squeeze what time savings and efficiency gains we can out of the line while we wait on the possibility of HSR, it’s always going to be hamstrung. And BNSF will not let us run enough trains to meet demand on their ROW and BTW they charge $100 million for each additional slot for another daily run. Lack of reliability and frequency/options will cut into business travel, pushing people to fly or drive. https://www.theurbanist.org/2020/01/10/washingtons-draft-state-rail-plan-presents-foggy-but-promising-future/

        I’m not trying to pretend the embodied carbon of HSR construction is small. It’s a big commitment. But we need to create an alternatives to freeway expansion and flying and holding out hopes electrifying small planes will fix it is a bit hand-wavy considering that flying itself appears to be contributing to the greenhouse effects via chemtrails. The point of HSR is to prevent the expansion of freeways and airports and encourage density particularly near the in-between stations, and we should certainly try to do climate projections to see how quickly we can expect to cancel out the embodied carbon. But we have to commit to and study the entire strategy, not just shoot down anything in knee-jerk way.

        This is a suburban region now, but it’s trending urban. Seattle is growing faster than its suburbs. The suburbs that are growing fast include a lot of dense multifamily like Bellevue and recently Shoreline and Redmond. Even if we were to assume that trend were to peter out, how would suburban growth continue with a urban growth boundary in place and greenfield developable sites land becoming scarce between Puget Sound and the Cascades? To assume a suburban development pattern doesn’t pass the sniff test because the land simply isn’t there near enough to the core.

  2. The election results should benefit transit. One thing Biden and a Republican controlled Senate can agree on is infrastructure spending, which is essentially stimulus. Biden and McConnell go way back, and their ideology is classic D.C. ideology: pork.

    I think infrastructure is an easier deal than the Democrats’ stimulus proposal that is very ideological, and includes large blank stimulus to blue cities and states that red states believe is a transfer of wealth.

    Pork transit is generally left up to the local jurisdiction. Those areas that want roads and bridges can spend the stimulus funds on those, and those jurisdictions that want transit can spend the money there.

    At the same time infrastructure needs for some cities like Seattle are so expensive and ignored despite nearly a decade of good economic times bridges and roads costs (which are what buses travel on) may be so great little is left over for transit.

    I also agree electric cars and delivery trucks will negate the spurious claim transit reduces global warming, and until we know the impacts from working from home and driverless technology it is hard to know whether spending more money on expensive fixed rail is a good long term investment. I hope Biden truly incentivizes electric cars because there is no downside to the user.

    Probably not when it comes to expensive rail, but transit and transportation are first and foremost political decisions. We don’t even have consensus within the different areas of King Co. Progressives think federal stimulus means Seattle, but don’t count on it. Biden historically has been a very conservative Democrat, and if you really care about poor, marginalized communities of color that means buses. Few projects are more white, wealthy or gentrified than East Link.

    • “One thing Biden and a Republican controlled Senate can agree on is infrastructure spending”

      Actually, Mitch McConnell has consistently opposed infrastructure spending. If he didn’t go for it under Obama or Trump, he’s not going to go for it under Biden.

      “I hope Biden truly incentivizes electric cars because there is no downside to the user.” Agree, we definitely need more adoption of EV’s to decarbonize the transportation sector. In particular, we need vastly more public charging stations to make EV’s a viable option for people that don’t have a private garage with an electrical outlet.

      “Progressives think federal stimulus means Seattle, but don’t count on it. Biden historically has been a very conservative Democrat”. Any stimulus money must come from Congress. Biden may be no Bernie Sanders, but he’s clearly to the left of the Senate, so it’s the Senate, not Biden, that becomes the limiting factor at anything we may get. And it probably won’t be much, as WA is not a Swing State.

    • “Biden historically has been a very conservative Democrat”

      Not really. Biden has been a centrist *within* the Democratic Party. As the party moves to the left or right, you will generally find him there. That is why his positions drifted left his election. Of course, that doesn’t mean squat since the Republicans will likely control the Senate.

      Anyway, I agree with all of the points made by Anonymous. It all comes down to what happens in the Senate. (Which is why, for example, the Bernie boys completely missed the point. A Sanders presidency will look almost exactly like a Biden presidency in that it will be limited by the Senate (most likely for at least the next two years)).

  3. I’ve said this before, but pitching high speed rail as a climate solution is failing to see the forest for the trees. The vast majority of trips people make are within their own metro area, not between two different metro areas 150 miles apart. Even just among the long-distance trips, people generally don’t travel between Seattle and Portland over and over again. Instead, they might fly to California one year, New York the next year, Europe the year after that, etc. The vast majority of such flying involves distances far too long for high speed rail to make sense.

    Two policies that would make a much bigger difference including more urban rail for people to travel within their cities, and a strong push to replace gas-powered cars with EV’s.

    Climate aside, high speed rail can still sometimes be justified as an economic development tool. When cities are connected with high speed rail, people travel between those cities more often, spending money in the other city, resulting in a boost to each city’s economy. But, you have to consider cost vs. benefit. In California, at least, HSR is looking giant boondoggle – tens of billions just to connect Fresno to Bakersfield, with no plan whatsoever to get through the hills to actually reach Los Angeles or San Francisco.

    As RossB said, there are probably incremental upgrades to the Cascades route and the Northeast Corridor route and others that make sense. But, building a brand new high speed rail line from scratch probably doesn’t.

    Should also mention though that part of the high cost of nationalism with the US succumbing to the pride of having everything manufactured in the US for a substantially higher price than the rest of the world pays. If we could just get over our pride and let China build more of our infrastructure, we could save a ton of money.

  4. No, this is not happening. No matter who is in office, we are a car centric country and that’s not changing. Using climate change will not sway anyone either. In fact, it’ll probably stiffen opposition.

  5. There is what he wants to do, and what it possible, especially given that the Senate will probably be in Republican hands (although we won’t know for a couple months). There is also the unfortunate reality that the most areas where high speed rail makes sense are in solidly Democratic areas. If you think of high speed rail like that in Japan or Europe, then the Northeast as well as California are about it.

    That doesn’t mean that speeds can’t improve substantially. In the Northwest, for example, high speed rail would be a terrible value (https://seattletransitblog.com/2018/01/09/high-speed-rail-study-predicts-low-ridership/). It would probably be worse in terms of global warming (the extra concrete won’t be made up for with less driving for a very, very long time). On the other hand, with a lot smaller investment, trains could average 110MPH, which was the plan back back in 2006 (https://www.aawa.us/site/assets/files/7322/2006_washington_state_long-range_plan_for_amtrak_cascades.pdf). That would be a huge improvement. I could see the same sort of thing in areas like Texas, the southeast and upper Midwest — areas with plenty of Republicans. The only question is whether those Republicans will have a knee-jerk opposition to rail, or whether the specific benefit to their area will be enough to pass meaningful improvements.

    • All your pronouncements about who deserve high speed rail and light rail and who doesn’t fail to take into account population growth. Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver are three very fast growing metropolitan areas in the sweet spot distance-wise for high speed rail.

      You also fail to account for what’s the alternative to Cascadia high speed rail. Regional transportation demand is going to rise as each of the three major metros add million+ residents. I-5 can’t handle the load and widening it–even by one lane in each direction–is more expensive ($110 billion!) than building high speed rail ($24 billion -$42 billion). Adding another runway at SeaTac to handle travel demand is pegged at $10 billion. So why not build high speed rail? It helps us avoid adding another major airport and sinking a ton of money into widening I-5. Let’s get out of this austerity mindset. Do the incremental improvements in the short-term, improve the metros and rapid bus networks in each city, and charge ahead with HSR in the long-term.

      I responded to Dan Ryan’s high speed rail gripes here: https://www.theurbanist.org/2019/07/17/high-speed-rail-business-case/.

      In short, my point was study used really conservative assumptions; no road pricing or carbon tax is assumed in the modeling from the study. With either/both of those, even more trips would move from planes or personal cars to high speed rail. Even if neither materialize, the rising cost of air travel and owning a car could have a similar effect. To assume no road pricing or carbon fee by 2040 is to assume failure on climate. Our governments will need to favor zero-emission transportation over carbon-intensive travel. They should boost the market for high-speed rail, just as they colossally subsidized the interstate freeway system and the car industry.

      • I think you’re vastly overstating the need for travel between Seattle and Portland.

        In particular, many of the same fallacies with new highway construction that this blog usually does a good job of pointing out, they use the same arguments to justify rail construction, while fail to realizing that it’s the same failed argument. I’m referring to the premise that the need for travel is always growing exponentially, and that you have to meet it to avoid gridlock, completely ignoring the laws of induced demand.

        If HSR were somehow built between Seattle and Portland, I have no doubt the train would get used, but to say that every train trip is an avoided car or plane trip would be disingenuous. A whole lot of the train trips would be “induced demand” that would have otherwise been not taken altogether (perhaps replaced by videoconferencing). That’s not to say there is no value in increasing travel between the cities. When people travel, they spend money, which helps both cities’ economies. But you have to weigh the economic benefit against the economic cost of the taxes to fund it and, right now, I don’t see it passing the sniff test.

        As I said before, if the goal is climate, HSR doesn’t really address it. Only a tiny fraction of all driving in and around Seattle and Portland is between Seattle and Portland. Of the Seattle->Portland driving that does that place, much of it is drives that cannot reasonably be replaced by the train, for example, trips to or from exurban/rural areas near Seattle and Portland, rather than the city itself, or trips carrying large quantities of cargo. Even among flights between Seattle and Portland, much of that is people making connections to longer-distance flights, so replacing the flight with a train doesn’t work. (There is also some research going on which suggests that electrifying short-haul flights, such as Seattle->Portland, might be feasible). Of what’s left, much of the driving is families traveling together, causing the per-person fuel economy to be 2-4 times better than that of the car itself. A family of 4 sharing a Prius probably consumes less fuel per person than Amtrak. At the same time, the market share of electric cars is increasing and by the time any Seattle->Portland HSR line could actually open, electric cars are likely to become nearly ubiquitous. For those that don’t want to drive, buses down I-5 are likely to be electric-powered by then, too. Meanwhile, the construction of any rail line incurs its own carbon emissions. Nearly all construction equipment in use today is diesel-powered. Manufacturing all that concrete adds more carbon to the atmosphere. Plus, the carbon that would no longer be absorbed by trees removed to make room for the tracks.

        So, the question becomes what the purpose of Seattle->Portland HSR actually is. If it’s fighting climate change, we can do that much more effectively by improving transit within each city and by increasing adoption of electric cars. If it’s economic development, it fails the cost/benefit test, since you’re not going to get enough extra travel to justify the $100 billion price tag.

        • Agree. Relatively modest ($1B, which is a ton of money but only modest compared to new HSR trackage) can make an enormous improvement in the quality (speed & frequency) of our current Cascades service. The fact that most ‘knowledge’ workers can work while riding an intercity train means that reducing travel time between these cities doesn’t actually create productivity. For non-work trips, people are far more cost sensitive, so a subsidy for low cost intercity bus connections would be far more useful than HSR.

          And climate charge and economic development are likely opposing HSR arguments. The Cascadia Innovation Corridor is explicit in it’s business case for HSR that facilitating new greenfield development is an HSR keystone.

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