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Passenger & Freight Rail

The rail system that carries both passengers and freight in our country earns a grade of B. That is the second highest grade ASCE gave in 2021 and the same grade the rail system got in 2017. Since ASCE’s estimates for new funding need are based on what it would take to achieve a B, no additional spending is needed to achieve that for rail.

Nevertheless, all four new spending plans include percentage increases that are the largest of all categories. The White House plan proposed $8 billion in additional spending each year, a 267% increase in federal funding. Senate Republicans call for $2.8 billion in new spending on our rail system. At 92%, it is the single biggest increase in federal infrastructure spending proposed by Senate Republicans. The Common Sense Coalition proposal that President Biden now supports includes $13.2 billion, a 440% increase in federal funding. The Problem Solvers’ plan for $12 billion in new spending is a 400% increase.

The Case for a Big Investment

The far greater energy efficiency of rail compared to roads in transporting people and goods is a major reason offered by supporters for a particularly large increase in federal spending on rail. Supporters also point out that passenger rail, particularly in the Northeast Corridor, is subject to many costly and frustrating delays due to the inferior condition of the rail infrastructure. Reducing those delays, they argue, would increase ridership and help reduce the traffic delays on the northeast’s crowded highways.

The Case for a Smaller Investment

Both Republicans and Democrats who argue for a more modest investment in rail emphasize ASCE’s finding that the country’s rail system has already achieved the target B grade and is in better condition than almost all other categories of infrastructure. Because its condition has been good and steady at current levels of federal funding, opponents argue that even the Republican proposal to nearly double the level of federal funding for rail is simply not justified. They argue that much larger increases in the other three plans are even less justified.

The Evidence

The Federal Railroad Administration found that rail is 1.9 to 5.5 times more fuel efficient than trucks for transporting goods, depending on route and distances. ASCE also reported 328,000 train-delay minutes (about 5,467 hours) per year within the Northeast Rail Corridor due to infrastructure-related issues.