Pete Buttigieg visits Raleigh to tout $1B bipartisan railroad investment: 'Game changer'

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Monday, December 11, 2023
Pete Buttigieg announces $1B in funding for NC rail service
The bipartisan infrastructure funding will be used for the Raleigh to Richmond Rail Line.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg traveled to North Carolina on Monday.

Buttigieg's visit was to announce and celebrate the Biden administration's $1 billion bipartisan investment to build passenger rail service between Raleigh and Richmond, Virginia.

The investment is one of the seemingly few instances of politicians from both sides of the aisle supporting an initiative. Last week, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis spent time praising the grant.

"This $1 billion grant for North Carolina to make progress on the Raleigh to Richmond Rail Line is a big win for economic development in the region," Tillis said. "I'm proud this investment was made possible by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that I helped negotiate, write, and pass into law."

Tillis even set up a part of his website to detail specific investments authorized by the bill.

"It will be a game-changer," said Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin, who kicked off Monday morning's event inside Raleigh Union Station.

The plans include designing and building passenger rail routes between Raleigh and Richmond, connecting the state with Virginia, Washington, D.C. and the Northeast Corridor.

"It's a generational undertaking. It won't get done overnight but it will be done swiftly and with this funding, North Carolina will be able to bring that new transit service connecting Raleigh to Wake Forest, upgrading tracks, improving safety at several railroad crossings, and laying the groundwork for a key section of the Southeast Corridor," said US Transportation Pete Buttigieg.

The White House projects the rail system will be a major time-saver for travelers; currently, it takes about six hours from Raleigh Union Station to Washington, D.C., and more than ten hours from Raleigh Union Station to New York City.

"Broadly the reason why developing nations have rail networks and passenger rail is that it lifts up the entire economy. It creates more affordable and consistent ways for people to get to where they're going, and gives people a choice so that they don't always have to bring a ton of them everywhere they go. And for those who can't or don't have a car or drive, it opens up chances for them to earn a better living to contribute," Buttigieg explained.

The nearly $1.1 billion grant is the largest NCDOT has ever received and comes amidst a growing focus on traffic and roadway congestion caused by a population boom. A 2022 report by UNC's Kenan Institute listed Raleigh and Durham as the fourth fastest-growing cities in the country.

"Passenger rail routes are incredibly important for small businesses, and workers throughout our state, allowing for further hiring accessibility, and encouraging consumers to travel to Raleigh and this great area and put money back into our local economy," said Congresswoman Valerie Foushee, who represents the state's Fourth District.

"You have to make sure that you can handle the increased population that's coming with all of these jobs that you're bringing not only to our urban areas but our rural areas as well. And I think you know, the saying if you build it, they will come - that happens with our highways, but it also happens with our public transportation," added Gov. Roy Cooper.

Cooper noted the project is still years away from coming to fruition but is aligned with previous economic announcements.

"North Carolina has become an epicenter of clean energy and public transportation is an important part of that. People are ready for passenger rail to get them from one place to the next," Cooper explained.

According to Amtrak, ridership increased by nearly 30% at Raleigh Union Station in the 2023 fiscal year compared to the previous year.

"You can see people are ready to use it and would use it so much more if we can enhance the speed, the reliability, the frequency and the routes. And we have a partner in the state of North Carolina ready to pick up the ball and work with us to make sure it's on time, on task, on budget," said Buttigieg.

Following his stop at Raleigh Union Station, Buttigieg joined Mayor Baldwin and other transportation officials for a bus ride along the bus rapid transit corridor. Last month, the city broke ground on the new GoRaleigh transportation system, which will be the first bus rapid transit corridor in the state.

North Carolina is one of four states with two Republicans who each voted for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (Sen. Thom Tillis and former Sen. Richard Burr).

A new train path from Raleigh to Richmond is the crowning achievement of a bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Biden dings Trump on infrastructure, while he showcases $8.2B for 10 major rail projects

President Joe Biden went to Las Vegas on Friday to say he's "putting high-speed rail on the fast track," and he used the moment to blast Donald Trump - his predecessor and likely 2024 challenger - as a do-nothing politician.

"Trump just talks the talk. We walk the walk," Biden said at a hall for unionized carpenters. "He likes to say America is a failing nation. Frankly, he doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. I see shovels in the ground and cranes in the sky. People hard at work rebuilding America together."

The president showcased $8.2 billion in new federal funding for 10 major passenger rail projects across the country. He also emphasized the fundamental differences between Trump and himself, a sign that his policy speeches are taking an ever greater political bent with the election now roughly 11 months away.

The Democrat said Trump "failed" to deliver on his promises to invest in U.S. infrastructure. Biden countered that his rail funding could help to connect Las Vegas to Los Angeles via high-speed trains before L.A. hosts the Summer Olympics in 2028, slashing travel times, helping the environment and creating jobs.

Biden hopes that investment through federal and state partnership programs will help to boost prospects for the long-discussed project, which supporters say could revitalize travel in the American West but critics argue is too costly.

The 218-mile (350.8-kilometer) train route linking Las Vegas and Rancho Cucamonga, California, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) east of downtown Los Angeles, may one day serve more than 11 million passengers annually.

Another electric rail line getting funding has been billed as the nation's first high-speed route and is eventually planned to traverse California's Central Valley and extend to San Francisco and on to Los Angeles, with trains reaching up to 220 mph (354 kph).

The funding highlighted by the president won't be nearly enough to cover the full costs of either project but signals the Biden administration's commitment to spurring train travel in a nation that has long celebrated the spirit of fast cars and open highways.

Other train projects getting funding include upgrades to heavily traveled corridors in Virginia and North Carolina, with the eventual goal of linking Richmond and Raleigh by rail. Funding will also go to improvements to a rail bridge over the Potomac River to bolster passenger service in Washington and will cover train corridor upgrades in western Pennsylvania and Maine, while expanding capacity at Chicago's Union Station, one of the nation's busiest rail hubs.

The announcement aside, Biden also used his visit to Las Vegas to address this week's shooting at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which killed three people and wounded a fourth. Biden again called for Congress to act on an assault weapons ban.

"I'm not going to rest until we do all we can to prevent more families and more communities from being torn apart by gun violence," Biden said.

The president is to end the day in Los Angeles at a fundraiser featuring entertainment industry luminaries.

Friday's trip was planned before the shooting and Biden's focus on train service is little surprise for a president who is a big passenger rail advocate. Biden has championed several major federal spending investments in passenger rail travel, including last month when he announced $16 billion in federal investments for rail travel along the busy Northeast Corridor.

During his 36 years as a senator, Biden traveled back and forth from his home in Delaware to Washington daily and says he has logged more than 1 million miles on Amtrak.

Making high-speed rail a reality in California won't be easy, though, since its first-in-the-U.S. project has long been plagued by extended deadlines and cost overruns.

The plan has been funded by some prior federal grants, as well as a bond fund approved by voters in 2008, and revenue from the state's cap-and-trade climate program. But that adds up to a total far below the project's estimated costs, now at more than $100 billion.

California Republicans have long been critical of the project, but even some state Democrats have become more vocal in their skepticism.

Construction and land acquisition is underway in the Central Valley. But Brian Kelly, the project's CEO, has long said a fresh infusion of federal cash is an important part of advancing the project. The Biden administration had previously signaled support for the project when it restored nearly $1 billion in federal money that the Trump administration tried to revoke.

Asked about rising costs and growing delays on the high-speed line, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg acknowledged in a call with reporters, "They are facing a lot of the challenges that come with being the very first at anything."

"For all of these projects, we would not be funding them if we did not believe they can deliver," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.