Secretary Pete wants fast trains. He will have to succeed where Obama did not know.


U.S. transportation investment has been dominated by cars, as hundreds of billions have been spent on building the interstate highway system in the 20th century. But Buttigieg, echoing from his boss, President Joe Biden (sometimes called “Amtrak Joe,” due to his habit of running a train between the state of Delaware and Washington), recently spoke about modernizing American railroads.

“We need to take things to the next level,” Buttigieg said on MSNBC last week. “I think we have a real opportunity to do that, especially given the bilateral willingness to make real investments that lies ahead of us this year.”
The story of Buttigieg thought differently about transportation. As mayor of South Bend, Indiana, he sought to steer his downtown area around pedestrians and cyclists instead of motorists. He now works on a larger stage and tries to succeed where others have lagged behind.

Amtrak said America had the fastest passenger trains in the world in 1959, but now 18 nations are faster than the highest-speed option, the Acela, which runs between Boston and Washington DC.

“We were asked to be content with less in this country,” Buttigieg said in an MSNBC interview. “I just don’t know why people in other countries should have better train services and more investment in high-speed train services than Americans.”

A decade ago, the governments of Biden and Obama pushed for high-speed rail across the country, but lacked the necessary funding and political support.

In 2010, the administration presented an initial investment of $ 8 billion, as well as $ 5 billion to be invested over five years. By comparison, Amtrak typically receives less than $ 2 billion a year.

Obama’s initial funding meant a significant increase in rail funding, but it was only a small step toward paying for the national network.

Biden needs to invest much more to meet Buttigieg’s world-leading speech. Democratic congressman Seth Moulton’s plan to build a nationwide high-speed rail network required $ 205 billion over five years. (Contextually, the United States spends roughly $ 50 billion on highways.)

Obama’s speech on faster trains was not welcomed in Republican-led states. The governors of Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida have rejected billions in federal funding, flooding high-speed rail projects in these states.

It was a “huge, huge disappointment,” as Ray LaHood, Obama’s first transportation secretary, described to Florida that he spent $ 2.3 billion in 2011 in a CNN business interview to build a high-speed railroad.

LaHood said the project was ready to start, but Florida Governor Rick Scott refused support. Scott, the current U.S. senator, said in a statement to CNN Business that he declined funding because Florida taxpayers have to pay hundreds of millions for the project.

The Obama administration was instead interested in California. Construction is underway to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles. But initial construction is limited to Central California, away from the larger cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles. The project faced challenges, including rising costs, pushing deadlines, and reducing funding for the Trump administration. Additional funding will be needed to connect larger cities.
Brian Kelly, CEO of the California High Speed ​​Rail Authority, has expressed optimism that the project will attract private sector funding if it overcomes key hurdles such as environmental approvals and the land on which to build. The private sector has shown increased interest in high-speed rail in recent years, with projects to connect Houston and Dallas, as well as Las Vegas and larger Los Angeles.

Proponents of high-speed rail believe the Biden administration is in a better position to succeed, given what Obama learned in the Department of Transportation over the years when there was less experience with high-speed rail projects.

“A lot of people had to learn a lot of things very quickly. They did their best,” Rick Harnish, executive director of the High Speed ​​Rail Association, told CNN Business.

LaHood believes more U.S. governors would accept the funding, and it is estimated that up to half would use the funding. He feels the biggest hurdle is if the Biden administration can persuade Congress to fund high-speed rail.

This road will be a challenge, according to Moulton, who introduced his bill last year to invest billions in high-speed rail.

“There will be a lot of lawmakers who just want to repair their local potholes or old bridges, not invest in 21st century technology,” Moulton told CNN Business. “We can’t waste a generational opportunity by investing in last-generation infrastructure.”