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The Inside Track: Interview with Congressman Donald Payne Jr.

Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (NJ-10).

Last week, the INVEST in America Act passed through the House, promising $715 billion towards US transportation and infrastructure over a five year period. The bill includes a $95 billion proposal for passenger and freight rail investments and pledges to lay the groundwork for President ‘Amtrak’ Joe Biden’s vision on infrastructure. To get the inside track on the significance of this bill, and the future of railway travel more generally, we spoke to one of its key architects: New Jersey Congressman Donald Payne Jr.

Congressman Payne represents New Jersey’s 10th District and has a long-held interest in transport and infrastructure. In 2021 he was voted chairman of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials within the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. In 2017, he fought tirelessly to fund the Gateway Project: a multi-billion dollar program to rebuild transportation infrastructure between New Jersey and New York. He also sits on the House Subcommittee on Aviation and the Committee on Homeland Security.

You are one of the architects of the INVEST in America Act, which promises to bring America’s aging rail infrastructure into the 21st century and provide $95 billion to upgrade intercity passenger rail systems. What are the key ways in which you intend to bring about such radical change?

I don’t know if I would call it radical change because these are improvements that have needed to happen for decades. The INVEST in America Act would bring American rail infrastructure into the modern age. It would improve our entire rail system to make it more effective and competitive with similar systems in Europe and Asia. There are three key components to the bill that would achieve this result.

  • It provides $32 billion over five years for Amtrak to make sustained and consistent investments in tracks, stations, and equipment. In addition, it helps Amtrak expand its network into more urban and underserved communities.

  • It creates the Passenger Rail Improvement, Modernization, and Expansion (PRIME) grant program. This program provides an additional $25 billion over five years for rail projects that improve mobility and operational performance. In addition, it adds high-speed rail projects to the list of eligible programs.

  • It authorizes $25 billion for the Bridges, Stations and Tunnels (BeST) grant program to support publicly-owned or Amtrak-owned rail bridges, stations and tunnels that have total project costs of at least $500 million.

The INVEST in America Act would provide Amtrak with an additional $32 billion in funding.

When we spoke to Amtrak VP Denis Newman, he told us that where adequate frequency and competitive trip times exist, passengers prefer traveling by rail than by car or plane. Has this been your experience also? What changes can we make to get more Americans traveling by train?

This has been my experience. I use the train frequently when I travel from my district to Washington, D.C. because it is so easy to take one right from Newark to a station near Capitol Hill. I am not surprised that people prefer to take the train. There is something about train travel that cannot be duplicated in an automobile or airplane.

The reason people tend to overlook trains has to do with speed and convenience. When you own an automobile, it is faster and easier to get in and drive somewhere than it is to catch a train. That is why we must promote more high-speed rail projects nationwide. It would cut the travel time between stations significantly and make it more attractive to commuters. In addition, the INVEST in America Act would help Amtrak expand into more communities, particularly underserved communities. Once people experience a more efficient and more convenient rail transportation system, I think they will use trains more often.

Some freight lines have expressed concerns over an increase in passenger routes and services, arguing that this could delay trains carrying essential goods and drive up the costs. Do you think this is a fair concern and how will you prevent delays?

I don’t believe this is a fair concern. Freight lines have been enjoying more rail access than the law allows. This access has caused delays for passenger rail that, in turn, causes greater delays for other freight carriers that are waiting for passenger trains to get to their stations. Freight lines are required by law to give Amtrak passenger trains preference on railroads.

I introduced a bill, the Rail and Passenger Fairness Act (H.R. 2937), to give Amtrak more authority to prevent delays and help all rail carriers follow the law more effectively. When Amtrak is given the priority it deserves, I think it will make it easier for all freight lines to schedule their trains more efficiently and possibly save money in the long run. I was proud to help this bill become part of the recently-passed INVEST in America Act.

Major freight carriers have long resisted calls to make more room on their tracks for passenger trains.

The climate crisis is obviously very high on the agenda within the Biden administration. What role do you envisage for the transport sector as a whole, and railways in particular, in tackling this crisis?

Railways play a critical part in how we combat climate change. Much of the modern rail system uses trains that use carbon-emitting fuel to operate. I support the Biden Administration’s push to convert more trains and other public transportation, like buses, to fuels that reduce greenhouse gases, such as electric power.

However, trains are helping reduce carbon emissions as well. Everyone knows that when more people use trains, it means less automobiles on the roads. But many people may not know that transporting goods by rail instead of roads can reduce carbon emissions as much as 75 percent. Right now, railroads move 40 percent of U.S. freight, but only contribute less than two percent of transportation-related greenhouse gases. The INVEST in America Act will make passenger and freight rail carriers more attractive and bring down carbon emissions even further.

Finally, we have seen that President Biden’s infrastructure plan has had a tumultuous journey through the Senate in recent times. Are you generally optimistic about bipartisan cooperation when it comes to transportation and infrastructure?

I am optimistic about bipartisan cooperation because roads and bridges are crumbling across the country. I think everyone, Republican and Democrat, understands the need for this historic investment. That is why we continue to read about discussions from Republican elected officials about infrastructure. The recent announcement that a bipartisan group of Senators continues to work on an infrastructure bill is very hopeful. President Biden has prioritized a bipartisan deal and I am confident we can achieve that goal.

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