Can the White House jumpstart the Gateway Tunnel?By
One day after Amtrak and New Jersey’s Senate delegation introduced the Gateway Tunnel, Vice President Joe Biden announced a major six-year, $53-billion investment in high speed rail. Speaking in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station earlier today, Biden discussed how high-speed rail will help attain President Obama’s goal of winning the future, and while House Republicans who control the purse strings are somewhat skeptical of the reach of the plan, the money could help get the Gateway Tunnel off the ground.
“As President Obama said in his State of the Union, there are key places where we cannot afford to sacrifice as a nation – one of which is infrastructure,” the vice president said. “As a long time Amtrak rider and advocate, I understand the need to invest in a modern rail system that will help connect communities, reduce congestion and create quality, skilled manufacturing jobs that cannot be outsourced. This plan will help us to do that, while also increasing access to convenient high speed rail for more Americans.”
The White House has yet to lay out the specific investments, but it will look to spend in three key areas outlined in its press release. Those include:
- Core Express: These corridors will form the backbone of the national high-speed rail system, with electrified trains traveling on dedicated tracks at speeds of 125-250 mph or higher.
- Regional: Crucial regional corridors with train speeds of 90-125 mph will see increases in trips and reductions in travel times, laying the foundation for future high-speed service.
- Emerging: Trains traveling at up to 90 mph will provide travelers in emerging rail corridors with access to the larger national high-speed and intercity passenger rail network.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, absent from yesterday’s Gateway presser, joined Biden at the podium today. “In America, we pride ourselves on dreaming big and building big,” he said. “This historic investment in America’s high-speed rail network keeps us on track toward economic opportunity and competitiveness in the 21st century. It’s an investment in tomorrow that will create manufacturing, construction, and operations jobs today.”
House Republicans though were quick to raise an eyebrow toward this ambitious plan. John L. Mica, the House Transportation Committee Chair from Florida, is a supporter of high-speed rail, but he prefers to see a targeted investment in the northeast corridor. Selfishly, I’m not opposed to that, but Mica’s rhetoric is a bit over the top. Despite the committee leadership’s best wishes, private investment will likely not lead to a viable high-speed rail network in the northeast or elsewhere.
“This is like giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio,” he said said in a statement. “With the first $10.5 billion in Administration rail grants, we found that 1) the Federal Railroad Administration is neither a capable grant agency, nor should it be involved in the selection of projects, 2) what the Administration touted as high-speed rail ended up as embarrassing snail-speed trains to nowhere, and 3) Amtrak hijacked 76 of the 78 projects, most of them costly and some already rejected by state agencies.”
He continued: “Amtrak’s Soviet-style train system is not the way to provide modern and efficient passenger rail service. Rather than focusing on the Northeast Corridor, the most congested corridor in the nation and the only corridor owned by the federal government, the Administration continues to squander limited taxpayer dollars on marginal projects.”
But all of this is just a roundabout way for me to reach the question I asked in the headline: If Mica is willing to support high-speed rail in the northeast, if the White House wants to spend $53 billion over six years and if Amtrak has a viable plan to build a second cross-Hudson tunnel, these political forces should align to see the Gateway Tunnel realized. It might not have the same benefits for commuters as ARC did, but it will help ease rail congestion into and out of New York while opening the way for a high-speed Northeast Corridor. It’s a logical step that will require political cooperation.