How high speed trains got railroaded in Biden's infrastructure plan -

How high speed trains got railroaded in Biden’s infrastructure plan


With help from Allie Bice

Welcome to POLITICO’s 2021 Transition Playbook, your guide to the first 100 days of the Biden administration

We all know JOE BIDEN likes — okay, loooooooves — trains.

He has written that the Amtrak staff provided him with “another family entirely.” The Amtrak station in Wilmington, Del., is named after him. In 2006, his son, noted locomotive expert HUNTER BIDEN, joined Amtrak’s board — the Senate easily confirmed him by a voice vote.

So it’s no surprise that the infrastructure plan he proposed this week includes $80 billion for national and intercity rail over eight years, or $10 billion a year — five times the annual $2 billion in subsidies Amtrak gets.

What was a surprise is that nowhere in Biden’s nearly 12,000-word plan are the words “high-speed rail.”

When Biden was tasked with implementing the Recovery Act in 2009, the $8 billion dedicated in the bill to high-speed trains was his favorite initiative. He equated it to the beginning of the interstate highway system and sold it as a win-win for workers and environmentalists. He proposed billions more in high-speed rail funding in subsequent years to help create a nationwide bullet train system.

But even the chief advocates of those plans admit now that they failed.

“The high speed rail program that Vice President Biden and our team proposed ended up being a pretty big disappointment,” said RAY LaHOOD, the Transportation secretary at the time. The fast choo-choos in Tampa, Milwaukee, and from San Francisco to Los Angeles that Biden promised still do not exist more than a decade later.

Republican governors in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida saw the opportunity to score political points and prove their fiscal discipline by spurning the cash for said projects. But LaHood said part of the problem also was the high cost of building a new line from scratch.

California gleefully took the federal money. But the projects cost more than anticipated and the state now says the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line is out of reach until 2033. Instead, the authority is working to get trains running between the Central Valley cities of Merced and Bakersfield (hardly the West Coast’s version of the Acela corridor) by the end of the decade.

After that experience, LaHood thinks Biden will focus his efforts on “enhancing the current Amtrak system” rather than on splashy, Asian or Euro-style lines that would draw fire from Republicans.

“Given the fact that Biden is such a big Amtrak supporter, I really think he wants to improve rail service with existing lines and with opportunities to provide some connectivity to the current Amtrak line,” he said.

A White House official said that the rail plan includes grants that fall into four categories: Amtrak’s national network, modernization of the Northeast Corridor, intercity passenger rail, and freight rail and safety.

“While the proposed grant program for intercity rail could support new high-speed rail corridors, the ultimate focus of the plan is to support projects that offer the greatest public benefits for their costs,” the official said. “This could mean new high speed rail lines or it could mean other investments that improve service reliability, frequency, or travel time but don’t meet the definitional threshold of ‘high-speed rail.’”

Improving existing service is a far less ambitious vision for rail than many touted at the beginning of the 21st century. But it could also avoid political backlash from Republican governors who might be more receptive to federal money for rail improvements.

With many more details yet to be filled in, it’s possible high-speed rail could get some love in the final package, though.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority and Texas Central, a private effort to build high-speed rail between Dallas and Houston that Biden praised at a 2015 kickoff event, both cheered the $80 billion in funding proposed for rail projects. Texas Central hopes to have “access to funding from the plan like any other eligible project,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

Some lawmakers also plan to lobby to get high-speed rail funding included in the final package.

“It is embarrassing that the United States, the richest country in the world, is behind almost every industrialized country when it comes to high speed rail,” Rep. BRENDAN BOYLE (D-Pa.), who endorsed Biden’s campaign early in his campaign, said in a statement. “I will continue to push for it, especially in the Northeast corridor, where it is most needed.”

Despite the 2009 Recovery Act experience, high speed rail still has champions in the administration. Asked about high-speed rail last month at South by Southwest, Transportation Secretary PETE BUTTIGIEG called it “a no-brainer,” according to a transcript of his remarks provided by Texas Central.

“I think that a U.S. citizen ought to enjoy the highest standard of passenger rail service, and there is no reason why what is available to a U.S. citizen, say in Texas, ought to be inferior to the passenger rail options that are available to a Japanese, British, Turkish, Italian or Chinese citizen,” Buttigieg said.

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At Camp David, where he traveled on Marine One with first lady JILL BIDEN, BRUCE REED, YOHANNES ABRAHAM, ANTHONY BERNAL and his body man, STEPHEN GOEPFERT.

He discussed the March jobs numbers earlier in the day. And he offered his condolences to the family of WILLIAM EVANS, the Capitol Police officer killed in the line of duty today.

“As we mourn the loss of yet another courageous Capitol Police officer, I have ordered that the White House flags be lowered to half-mast,” he said in a statement.

No public events.

With the Center for Presidential Transition

Interior Secretary DEB HAALAND oversees more than 400 national parks across the country — which two presidents are tied for having the most national parks named after them?

(Answer is at the bottom.)

BIDEN BUDGET DELAYS — Biden’s budget rollout has been postponed, CAITLIN EMMA reports. Office of Management and Budget spokesperson ROB FRIEDLANDER confirmed it would not be released today, as administration officials were expecting, but added that they are “planning to release the discretionary request soon.” Friedlander did not specify when.

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DIPLOMACY IRL —The White House announced today that Biden’s first in-person bilateral will be April 16 with Japanese Prime Minister YOSHIHIDE SUGA in Washington.

CONFLICTED — Biden’s search for the Justice Department’s top trust-busting role is being bogged down by ethics concerns, both about candidates who have represented Silicon Valley’s giants and those who have represented critics of the big tech companies.

LEAH NYLEN writes that the concerns prompted one prime candidate for the department’s top antitrust role to pull herself out of the running. And they would also pose a major obstacle to Biden hiring JONATHAN KANTER, a progressive favorite who has represented many clients with complaints about Google.

ASK AND YE SHALL RECEIVE: The White House announced its picks for three under secretary positions at the Defense Department Friday evening — just days after senators of both parties told CONNOR O’BRIEN they were concerned about the lack of movement on filling senior Pentagon posts.

Biden plans to nominate former National Security Agency Director of Operations RONALD MOULTRIE as under secretary of Defense for intelligence & security; MICHAEL J. McCORD for under secretary of Defense (comptroller), a position he also held in the Obama administration; and former Symantec CEO MICHAEL BROWN for under secretary of Defense for acquisition & sustainment.

TWO-PLUS MONTHS LATER … Biden spoke with Ukrainian President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY this morning for the first time since taking office in January, amid reports of a Russian military buildup in eastern Ukraine that has alarmed U.S. and Ukrainian officials.

The leaders spoke for 30 to 40 minutes, according to a person with knowledge of the call. A White House readout of the conversation said Biden “reaffirmed the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression in the Donbas and Crimea.” More here from NATASHA BERTRAND and LARA SELIGMAN.

UNDO BUTTON: Biden lifted sanctions and visa restrictions on officials of the International Criminal Court (ICC) today. It’s the latest foreign policy reversal from the Trump administration, which had put those policies in place in part because of the ICC’s efforts to investigate actions of the U.S. and other parties in Afghanistan, NAHAL TOOSI reports (follow her here!)

The Biden administration restated its opposition to those investigations. “We continue to disagree strongly with the ICC’s actions relating to the Afghanistan and Palestinian situations,” Secretary of State TONY BLINKEN said. “We believe, however, that our concerns about these cases would be better addressed through engagement with all stakeholders in the ICC process rather than through the imposition of sanctions.”

Some Democrats are concerned about Biden’s Egypt policies (The Washington Post)

Last-minute Trump rule would let vaccine makers hike prices (The Intercept)

Soldier says she was sexually assaulted by 22 troops at Oklahoma base (The Intercept)

Giant holds off on ordering vaccine as D.C. residents cancel appointments (Washington Post)

The Working-Class GOP: A Muddled Concept (Free Beacon)

President Biden, recidivist (Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler)

Before becoming the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD served as the ambassador to Liberia under President BARACK OBAMA from 2008 to 2012.

But when she was first approached about an ambassadorship, she actually proposed working in a different African country.

In an interview with the U.N. Dispatch, Thomas-Greenfield said that while working as the principal deputy assistant secretary of African Affairs at the State Department, she was “very involved with the vetting and reviewing of senior individuals that became ambassadors in Africa.”

And when the assistant secretary at the time asked her where she wanted to go, Thomas-Greenfield suggested Gambia.

“She looked at me and she says, ‘No, I think you’re too important to go to Gambia,’” Thomas-Greenfield recalled. (No offense to Gambians!)

“She says, ‘Why not consider Kenya?’ and I said ‘If you really think I’m capable of being ambassador to Kenya, then I want to be ambassador to Liberia.’”

Solid negotiation, Linda.

She said she went with Liberia because the country had made history at the time.

“They’d gone through 14 years of civil war and elected the first woman ever to be a president in Africa, and I wanted to be part of that history in terms of helping her to succeed as president and … also to make sure that our own agenda and our own interests were pursued,” she explained.

TEDDY ROOSEVELT and ABRAHAM LINCOLN both have four national parks named after them, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.





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