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Passenger rail investment offers non-stop service to a prosperous economy

After the most contentious election in recent memory, the results are finally in. We congratulate President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on their victory and know that high on their agenda will be working together with Congress and both parties to solve the nation’s common challenges.

While gaining control of the pandemic must be the priority for us all, advancing infrastructure investment is a great place to start a path to the future. Boosting funding for America’s passenger railways, in particular, would juice the economy, protect the environment, and empower workers.

President-elect Biden ran on an ambitious plan to improve and modernize America’s infrastructure, including our passenger rail system. And the House recently proposed an annual appropriation for Amtrak of $10.5 billion — enough to keep Amtrak running and Amtrak workers employed through the COVID-19 pandemic while investing in the future.

In poll after poll, Americans of all political stripes consistently favor increasing federal infrastructure investment, including transportation infrastructure. One recent survey found that 80 percent of Americans support infrastructure improvement projects, making these policies more popular than almost any other item on the current legislative agenda, including health care reform.

But in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers may be tempted to put infrastructure investment on the backburner — they shouldn’t. Infrastructure investment is one of the most powerful ways to get our battered economy up and running again. Every $1 billion invested in transportation infrastructure puts over 20,000 Americans to work.

Leaders in Washington should focus on transportation upgrades that leave us best equipped for a post-COVID-19 future. That’s why modernizing and expanding our nation’s passenger rail system, and particularly Amtrak, should be a top priority.

Why trains? According to the Department of Energy, travel by commuter train is much more energy-efficient, and therefore better for the environment, than driving or taking a plane. In fact, by riding Amtrak, our customers can reduce up to 83 percent of travel emissions compared to driving and up to 73 percent compared to flying. And, because the U.S. has the world’s largest track network, already used primarily by freight trains, we have plenty of existing and former right of way to expand services without significantly impacting existing communities or our natural environment.

By opening up job opportunities and connecting diverse socio-economic communities, rail transit also helps combat inequality. This is especially true of infrastructure and services that make it easier for employees to get to work, such as Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. A recent study of economic mobility by researchers at Harvard University found that the longer workers have to commute, the less likely they are to improve their economic circumstances. By contrast, new interstates and roads tend to divide communities and fuel the kind of urban sprawl that depresses social mobility.

Investing in rail travel won’t just cushion the economic blow from COVID-19, it will help address the social and environmental challenges we’ll face once the pandemic is over. Other countries have already recognized this. In conjunction with emergency coronavirus aid, the French government saw a chance to address its climate commitments by restricting airlines from operating short-haul flights in places where trip-time competitive rail service is available.

There is no shortage of opportunities to strengthen the nation’s passenger rail system. They include investments in rail infrastructure, replacing the aged equipment on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional and National Network routes, and making long-needed improvements to major stations. Larger projects, such as extending Washington-Richmond Amtrak service along the Southeast Corridor to Raleigh and Charlotte, creating Gulf Coast corridor service, connecting Atlanta with Nashville, building intercity passenger services along the Front Range, and upgrading the Chicago-Detroit Corridor could vastly improve access to affordable transportation and alleviate highway congestion.

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered massive changes in the way Americans work, interact and travel, some of which will have long-term repercussions. But there are many things it hasn’t changed. We are still likely to add tens of millions of people to our nation over the coming decades, with the vast majority of them continuing to live in larger metropolitan areas. Few will question that we need a transportation system that is more resilient, less carbon-intensive, and capable of accommodating shifting travel demands and populations. That system must avoid negative impacts on communities and the environment and provide good jobs and opportunity for all. Only passenger rail can check all of those boxes. So while Americans may have divergent views on many issues, we should all be able to agree that it’s time to invest in passenger rail.

Bill Flynn is Amtrak’s President & CEO and Tony Coscia is Chair of the Amtrak Board.

Tags Amtrak Infrastructure Joe Biden

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File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

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In this photo released by the Governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhayev telegram channel, a rescuer gestures as he helps people during an evacuation after storm and flooding in Sevastopol, Crimea, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. A storm in the Black Sea took down power grids and left almost half a million people without power after it flooded roads, ripped up trees and damaged buildings in Crimea, Russian state news agency Tass said. (Governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhayev's telegram channel via AP)
In this photo released by the Governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhayev telegram channel, a rescuer gestures as he helps people during an evacuation after storm and flooding in Sevastopol, Crimea, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. A storm in the Black Sea took down power grids and left almost half a million people without power after it flooded roads, ripped up trees and damaged buildings in Crimea, Russian state news agency Tass said. (Governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhayev's telegram channel via AP)

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