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Looking Ahead to Biden Era, Officials Eye Investments in Rail Infrastructure

November 20, 2020 by Reece Nations
A rail road crossing. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Material conducted a hearing Wednesday exploring the Surface Transportation Board’s part in developments to the country’s passenger rail system. 

During the hearing, executive officials from Metra, Amtrak and the STB gave expert testimony before the subcommittee on conflicts between passenger and freight rail companies, proposed rail projects and budgetary constraints.

“Passenger rail is an important part of the climate change puzzle,” Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said at the hearing. “It is extremely fuel efficient — much more so than individual passenger vehicles, buses and airplanes, obviously. The commuter systems in particular take cars off our congested roadways and reduce short-haul flights.” 

If trains could reliably deliver passengers on-time to their in-state destinations — particularly in distances between 100 and 500 miles — hundreds more commuters would utilize the railways, DeFazio said. 

DeFazio noted that reliability continues to be an issue for Amtrak in his home state of Oregon, however, with service on the south-bound Cascades rail line having just a 58.3% on-time performance rating. 

The subcommittee’s hearing occurred one day after Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and Federal Railroad Administration officials hosted a virtual public hearing regarding the state’s proposed rail plan. 

In the draft of Pennsylvania’s state rail plan, a number of proposed rail projects for both passenger and freight trains are laid out. During the PennDOT and FRA hearing, officials fielded participants’ questions in order to incorporate their input into the finalized rail plan. 

“Pennsylvania’s integrated rail system will provide safe, convenient, reliable, cost-effective connections for both people and goods,” Alannah Strohecker, AECOM project manager, said at the hearing. “As a viable alternative to other modes, it will support our economic competitiveness, smart growth, and environmental sustainability and resiliency, thereby strengthening Pennsylvania’s communities.” 

The addition of another Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg daily round-trip train was one of the proposed projects mentioned in the hearing. PennDOT has plans for 48 passenger and 86 freight short-range rail projects, estimated to cost a combined $3.3 billion between 2021 and 2024. 

Residents of the Commonwealth should not expect to see any of these major rail projects from PennDOT underway anytime soon, however. All ongoing projects scheduled through the end of the year are refurbishments and improvements to regional passenger railway, according to the drafted rail plan

Angela Watson, multimodal special projects manager for PennDOT, said the department currently lacks the funds for new commuter railways, and that the FRA does not monetarily contribute to commuter-rail projects. 

President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration plans to prioritize railway investments nationwide as a “clean energy” initiative, according to his campaign website. Funding for expansions to high-speed rail, resuming long-distance services and refurbishing existing railways are some of the measures Biden makes note of in his platform. 

“Biden will make sure that America has the cleanest, safest, and fastest rail system in the world — for both passengers and freight,” his campaign site reads. “His rail revolution will reduce pollution, connect workers to good union jobs, slash commute times, and spur investment in communities that will now be better linked to major metropolitan areas.” 

The text continues, “To speed that work, Biden will tap existing federal grant and loan programs at the U.S. Department of Transportation, but plans to improve and streamline the loan process. In addition, Biden will work with Amtrak and private freight rail companies to further electrify the rail system, reducing diesel fuel emissions.” 

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