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New England Lawmakers Lobby Biden for High-Speed Train Funds

In the eyes of New England's rail champions and some lawmakers, the huge federal spending packages are an unrivaled opportunity to fund a massive train project that would transform the region.

Train in motion
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(TNS) — On Thursday, U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro, Richard Neal, and other New England lawmakers had a call with an urban planner who's pitching a high-speed train to carry people from Boston to New York City in 100 minutes or less.

The call is one of many conversations happening now among members of the Northeast Congressional delegation about securing high-speed rail for the New England region through President Joe Biden's $2.3 trillion infrastructure bill and a transportation funding package that is also expected to pass this year.

"We're going to fight for it," said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D- Conn. "We're going to be fighting first for the American Jobs Plan and second for the investment in the Northeast that is necessary for high speed rail."

DeLauro, D-1, said her staff was actively working with groups that advocate for more rail investment for the Northeast Corridor "to ensure these federal dollars make it to Connecticut and fund high-speed rail projects across New England."

"Together, we can build the architecture for our nation's future while at the same time creating millions of good-paying jobs that cannot be outsourced," she said.

In the eyes of New England's rail champions, the huge spending packages are an unrivaled opportunity to fund a massive train project that would transform the region.

"We can put a ton of money into 1950s highways, and maybe we'll get some electric vehicles so you can be traveling around in a brand spanking new electric car with an added lane to Route 93 and you'll still be stuck in traffic. Or you could be zipping across Massachusetts and zipping across the entire region at 250 mph in a high speed train," said Rep. Seth Moulton, D- Mass., who sits on the House Transportation Committee, in a recent WBUR interview. "That's what we're really gunning for in this proposal."

But lawmakers from every region are lining up lobbying efforts to snag cash for their preferred projects — including pitches for other high speed rail projects.

Prodding the conversation in the Northeast is a group of urban and transportation design experts, civic and business leaders that has coalesced around one vision they're calling the North Atlantic Rail initiative.

Their plan is for a high-speed rail line carrying trains moving 200 miles per hour from New York City up Long Island, through a tunnel under the Sound to New Haven and then north to Hartford before tacking east to Providence and then Boston. Travel from Boston to New York City on this train would be two hours faster than the quickest train Amtrak now operates, they say.

They also propose a host of other rail improvements — like upgrades to the existing New Haven line to New York — and new rail expansions — like service from Boston to Springfield, Mass. and Pittsfield, Mass. to Danbury.

The whole thing would take 20 years and $105 billion to accomplish, the project's advocates say. And they're seeking authorization for a new federal-state partnership to run it all: the North Atlantic Rail Corporation.

"We are putting our economy and our cities at a competitive disadvantage by not having a network like we propose," said Robert Yaro, an emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania and former leader of the Regional Plan Association in Manhattan. Yaro is a big name in infrastructure: he assisted President Barack Obama with rail initiatives tied to the 2009 stimulus, worked on the Tappan Zee bridge and helped lay the vision for Hudson Yards.

Since Biden took office, Yaro's North Atlantic Rail initiative has been presented to the U.S. Department of Transportation and many lawmakers and their staffs.

"Our work right now is focused on building as strong and united a coalition as possible in these seven states — New York and the six New England states — to push this vision forward," said Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, who co-chairs the initiative. "This region has more than 10 percent of the country's population, 14 percent of GDP, the highest train ridership in the country and an enormous opportunity to connect dozens of mid-size cities that have been left behind economically over the past 50 years to two of the biggest metro-areas in the country."

Biden — or "Amtrak Joe" as he's been nicknamed for his own frequent train ridership — already has at least some awareness of the proposal. Yaro, who has been working on this effort since 2007, described discussing his rail vision with Biden on at least two previous occasions.

In Sept. 2010, Yaro and his Penn students presented their high-speed rail plan to Biden in the White House Roosevelt Room. Biden pounded his fist on the table and said "Damn it. I've been waiting 30 years for this," by Yaro's retelling.

But some New England lawmakers are not embracing the full North Atlantic Rail vision, although they love the idea of high speed rail.

"I am not saying we are adopting hook, line and sinker what is the North Atlantic Rail Initiative, but they've got a lot of really good ideas that a lot of members care about," said Rep. Jim Himes, D-4. "So we are pushing that both with the White House and obviously at the end of the day — this is a bill that gets written in Congress — so with each other."

Some holds objections to North Atlantic Rail's boldest idea: a 16 mile tunnel under Long Island Sound that would carry their high-speed train from New Haven to Long Island.

"I spent a lot of years and time as Attorney General opposing projects that threaten the environmental integrity of Long Island Sound and this one seems to raise a lot of questions," Blumenthal said. "I approach it with initial skeptcism, but I've heard very few details."

Multiple lawmakers said they'd prefer to make improvements of expansions to the New Haven Line so that a high-speed train might run there. Yaro and Bronin said that is simply not possible because that corridor is "highly constrained," "narrow" and "winding" and one high-speed train would yank two to three Metro North trains out of the schedule. They set newest tunnel digging technology would allow the tunnel to be located deep underground where it would not impact the ocean floor or the wildlife of the Long Island Sound.

Blumenthal also raised objections to creating a new rail corporation to do the work.

Yaro said that was needed because Amtrak "has got their hands full." Amtrak announced it would make numerous improvements and service expansions — some in New England and some to new markets across the country — with the $80 billion Biden allocated for it in the American Jobs Plan.

DeLauro, D-1, called recent meetings with Yaro "informative" and said she appreciated North Atlantic Rail's desire to "go big."

U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1, said he shares "the goals of North Atlantic Rail," but the Congressman is not committing to the details of the plan yet.

"This is an exciting vision for our region's future," he said. "I'm committed to improving rail connection between New Haven and Springfield, finishing the Hartford line and connecting it to Worcester, and connecting Western Massachusetts to Boston with Hartford as a hub."

Numerous other countries from Japan to Kazakhstan have high-speed trains under construction or already operating. In the U.S. there is only one such project underway: a bullet train from San Francisco to Los Angeles. That project is facing funding woes and backers are almost certain to be reaching to Biden's infrastructure bill for aid.

Proponents of high speed rail in New England will have to compete with this and other projects proposed in Texas, Las Vegas and elsewhere for the major investment needed to kick start it. At least down payment for New England high speed rail and the necessary authorization could come from the American Jobs Plans, lawmakers and advocates hope.

Republicans have opposed Biden's $2.3 trillion proposal as too costly and too expansive in its definition of infrastructure. They say it's a terrible idea to fund the work through a corporate tax increase. They countered with their own smaller proposal of $568 billion to invest in roads, bridges, rail, ports, water systems and broadband.

When Biden announces part two of plan — big expansions of the social safety net, likely paid for by more tax increases on the wealthy — as soon as next week, Republican opposition is likely to grow.

Although Biden has reached out a hand to work together with Republicans, it means Democrats are likely to again use a legislative procedure that allows them to pass their vision without Republican votes.

Folks like Yaro are confident Amtrak Joe will get the legislation over the finish line, so they're sprinting to ensure their project will too.

"I've been in this business for 50 years and this is the best opportunity we've had for 50 years," Yaro said. "We're running to catch this one if we can."

©2021 the San Antonio Express-News, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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