Fri, Dec 8, 2023 7:08 PM
By WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press
LAS VEGAS (AP) — 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, 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, that 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.
Associated Press writers Josh Boak in Washington and Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento, California, contributed to this report.