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Senator Patty Murray has an important decision to make.
In the next few weeks, Murray and the Senate Transportation Appropriations Committee, which she chairs, will decide whether to heed or ignore calls from here in Washington and around the country for increased high speed rail investment when it finalizes its spending bill for next year.
Right now, Congress is ironing out its annual transportation appropriations bill. The first version of this bill included an historic $4 billion investment in high speed rail, intended to meet the enormous nationwide demand fostered by economic recovery funds. That bill passed in the House, with a wide bipartisan majority of the members voting on more than one occasion to deny attempts to lessen the high speed rail funding. The one thing that Republicans and Democrats showed they can support in unison so far this Congress is high speed rail.
When the bill moved to the Senate, though, Murray and her committee decided to buck the House and cut the appropriation for high speed rail down by nearly 75 percent, to $1.2 billion, in order to make room for more highway funding.
Senator Murray now has a second chance to reinstate high speed rail funding when she serves as a co-chair of a joint committee that will finalize the bill. That committee’s eventual choice will send an important signal to the country about this Congress’ commitment to funding high speed rail as an innovative solution to our nation’s transportation challenges.
High-speed rail offers solutions to our economic, energy, and environmental problems. It will put people to work, clean our air, cut our energy-consumption, facilitate travel and business, and assist in the resurgence of American manufacturing. It will also begin to cut climate changing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, which are responsible for the lion’s share of Washington’s global warming pollution.
A $4 billion federal investment would buy new, high-performance locomotives and passenger cars built in the U.S., better signals, track and grade-crossing upgrades and removal of rail bottlenecks, all resulting in faster and more convenient travel. It will also create tens of thousands of quality American jobs in states that have experienced losses in the technology, construction, and engineering sectors over the last decade.
Nationwide, funding the 9,000 miles of USDOT-designated high-speed corridors will add up to 4.5 million permanent jobs and 1.6 million construction jobs. That is not counting up to 100,000 jobs relating to the manufacturing of new trains.
Americans are turning to passenger rail in record numbers. Rail travel ridership increased each of the last six years, while vehicle miles traveled for cars and trucks has fallen over the last two years for the first time since the oil crisis of the 1970s.
State and local leaders are searching for the means to meet this demand. The US Department of Transportation reports that the Federal Railroad Administration has received at least 300 pre-applications from 40 states totaling more than $100 billion in requests for high speed intercity passenger rail grant funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
History holds a cautionary tale: In 1965, President Johnson and Congress joined forces to successfully create the fastest passenger train in the world. The technology worked, but Congress did not follow through with the funding for high-speed track. Now, Senator Murray and her committee have the power to either make history or repeat it. Senator Murray has been a champion on public transit in the past and needs to show that leadership again. America simply cannot afford any more false starts on high-speed rail.
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