High-speed rail projects get a $6B infusion of federal infrastructure money

By Joel Rose (NPR)
Dec. 8, 2023 7:46 p.m.
A Brightline train during its inaugural trip between Miami and West Palm Beach, Fla., in 2018. This week, the White House announced $3 billion in funding for Brightline West, a proposed high-speed rail line connecting Las Vegas and Southern California.

A Brightline train during its inaugural trip between Miami and West Palm Beach, Fla., in 2018. This week, the White House announced $3 billion in funding for Brightline West, a proposed high-speed rail line connecting Las Vegas and Southern California.

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

A pair of high-speed rail projects in Nevada and California is getting a big push from Washington.

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The Biden administration pledged more than $6 billion in federal funding for high-speed rail, aiming to close the gap between the U.S. and other developed nations when it comes to fast and reliable passenger service.

"We're not there today for the simple reason that you get what you pay for, and America disinvested over the last many decades in our rail systems," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said on a call with reporters. "We're reversing that trend."

The high-speed rail projects are part of $8 billion in funding for passenger rail announced today — the latest installment in what the White House calls the largest investment in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak more than 50 years ago.

Related: Lawmakers introduce bill that would require ultra-high-speed rail project to extend to Eugene

This round of funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes a $3 billion grant for the project known as Brightline West, a new 218-mile intercity passenger system connecting Las Vegas and Southern California. Brightline, the only private intercity passenger railroad in the country, is already operating high-speed service between Miami and Orlando.

"We're ready to get to work," Wes Edens, the founder and chairman of Brightline, said in a statement. "This is a historic moment that will serve as a foundation for a new industry, and a remarkable project that will serve as the blueprint for how we can repeat this model throughout the country."

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The federal grant for Brightline West is expected to cover only part of the project's estimated $12 billion cost, but it's still one of the largest federal infrastructure grants ever to a private company. The company hopes to open the line in time for the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Related: What would high speed rail mean for the Pacific Northwest?

Rail advocates hailed the announcement as a major boost for the industry.

"The tide has turned for high-speed rail in America," Andy Kunz, the founder and CEO of the US High Speed Rail Association, said in a statement. "Electrified bullet trains will transform the nation's transportation system — reducing congestion, helping end our dependency on fossil fuels and advancing the fight against climate change."

The White House also announced nearly $3.1 billion in funding for a high-speed rail project in California. The ambitious plan to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles has been plagued by delays and cost overruns. The estimated cost of the full project has grown from $33 billion some 15 years ago to more than $100 billion today.

The funding announced this week will go toward the construction of a 171-mile segment between Merced and Bakersfield in California's Central Valley.

"They are facing a lot of the challenges that come with being the very first at anything," Buttigieg said on the call with reporters.

Related: Rail Advocates Still Pushing For Northwest Bullet Train Despite Anti-tax Mood

It would take generations of investment for the U.S. to build the kind of high-speed rail networks that passengers in Europe and Japan use today, Buttigieg said. Still, he argues that the appetite for high-speed rail will grow as Americans see new intercity routes begin to carry passengers.

"It won't change overnight," Buttigieg said. "But within a few years you're going to see some real noticeable improvements and some very exciting things including — before the end of this decade, if all goes well — the experience of true high speed rail on American soil."

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