March 31, Amtrak proposed expansions to their current rail grid in a “Connect US” plan that would use the $80 billion allotted to rail infrastructure under President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan if it passes Congress.
The plan aims to increase Amtrak ridership by 20 million people by 2035 to tackle the climate crisis and reach underserved communities.
Among the over 30 potential new routes in the plan, one connects Madison to Milwaukee and Minneapolis. The route resembles the high-speed rail project that was nearly built with Obama administration funding but canceled by Gov. Scott Walker in 2010.
If fully built, Amtrak’s proposed expansions would create a more connected America that benefits mid-sized cities like Madison by creating an efficient way for people to travel from larger cities. The plan could also lead America’s path towards a sustainable future and spur economic growth.
A train route linking Madison, Milwaukee and Minneapolis would allow all three cities to share their economic growth by making leisure travel and commuting easier. Similar connections between large and medium-sized cities on the proposal, like Indianapolis-Cincinnati-Columbus, offer the same growth opportunities.
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Despite being Wisconsin’s capital city and having its own airport, Madison lacks the sustainable transportation infrastructure that would allow it to realize more of its economic potential.
Madison’s only form of public transportation is the mainly gas-powered bus system, and it lacks a light rail network or Amtrak station that cities like Pittsburgh or Cleveland have.
Madison is most easily accessible by car, leaving its tourist and commuter networks prone to congestion. This makes it difficult for those living in cities without cars to travel to Madison, something that could cause higher tourist spending in the area.
A lack of a fast train connection also prevents those with jobs in cities like Milwaukee or Minneapolis from living in Madison and commuting. Connecting these cities would increase homeownership rates as the population increases, which has been linked to local economic growth by employing labor and services from the nearby area.
Building the new routes would also add thousands of jobs to regional economies across the country. A report by the American Public Transportation Association says every $1 billion spent on high-speed rails creates about 24,000 new jobs.
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These jobs could help America escape the economic recession it entered during the COVID-19 pandemic, similar to how the New Deal’s Public Works Administration revived economic activity following the Great Depression.
A rail network is also a permanent investment that can be used for decades, unlike stimulus payments or unemployment relief that only offer short-term economic boosts.
Broadly, Amtrak’s plans offer an opportunity for America to begin its overdue quest for a carbon-neutral economy through sustainable transportation. Railways give off far less greenhouse emissions than other transportation alternatives like cars or trucks.
Amtrak’s new routes are necessary for America to be a leader in the global requirement to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050 to prevent an irreversible climate crisis.
According to the World Resources Institute, trains move 32% of goods in the U.S. but only account for six percent of freight-related greenhouse gas emissions. In comparison, trucks move 40% of goods but create 60% of American freight-related greenhouse gas emissions. These percentages show that a larger rail network would significantly decrease emissions in the shipping industry.
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Railways can also cut back on the environmental land degradation that a reliance on highways causes. Highways can fragment habitats by creating an impenetrable barrier within a forest that limits animal migrations. Railways can slow this effect by taking cars off the road and decreasing the demand for new highways to be built.
While the American Jobs Plan — which includes tax increases, union support and wage increases — is not entirely bipartisan, Amtrak’s proposed expansions are. They would make it easier for all Americans to travel to work or go on vacation while making the environment we live in healthier.
If Congress can’t pass the American Jobs Plan, Amtrak’s plans must be reused in another bill that both Republicans and Democrats can support together. America can’t call itself the leader of the free world if it continues to pollute the environment at high rates.
Amtrak is offering an opportunity for the U.S. to create a modern, sustainable transportation network that moves away from the outdated highway system. We need to get to work before it’s too late.
Will Romano ([email protected]) is a freshman studying economics and journalism.