Infrastructure bill invests big in Amtrak, creates post of tourism officer

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T1115DENVERUNIONSTATION_C_HR [Credit: T1108BRIGHTLINE4_C]
The infrastructure bill calls for the largest investment in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak. Pictured, Union Station in Denver. Photo Credit: Amtrak

The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday night passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill with a 228-206 vote.

Nineteen representatives crossed party lines for the legislation that is set not only to overhaul U.S. infrastructure elements from roads and bridges to airports and rail, but creates the position of chief travel and tourism officer. 

The bill also includes major investments in electric vehicle infrastructure and charging stations among other environment-focused moves. 

The $1.2 trillion bill is the largest investment in public works since President Dwight D. Eisenhower introduced the Interstate Highway System; it represents $550 billion in new spending.

An 11th-hour agreement forged by the Congressional Black Caucus to separate the vote on infrastructure from the $1.85 billion Build Back Better social spending bill finally allowed the bill to pass after months of debate. The Senate in August had passed a version of the bill; President Joe Biden is expected to sign it in to law as early as Nov. 8.

In terms of travel, the bill pumps $25 billion into airports to address repair and maintenance backlogs, reduce congestion and emissions near ports and airports and drive electrification and other low-carbon technologies. 

New position: Chief travel and tourism officer

The bill will establish a formal chief travel and tourism officer as part of the Department of Transportation.

U.S. Travel Association CEO Roger Dow said in a statement upon the passage of the Infrastructure and Jobs Act, "This bill will have a profound impact on how people travel for decades to come. By making historic investments in our transportation infrastructure now, we can emerge from the pandemic with stronger, more modern and efficient systems that can facilitate a resurgence in travel demand. … The historic levels of travel infrastructure investment provided by this act -- including for airports, railways, highways, electric vehicle charging stations and more -- will accelerate the future of travel mobility." 

He added that the new chief of travel and tourism role "will be vital for rebuilding our industry and preparing to welcome back visitors from around the world."

Big investment in Amtrak

It also will push $66 billion to Amtrak for track repairs and expansion. It is the largest investment in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak. 

Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn in a statement called out improvement projects on the Northeast Corridor and cited the possibility of "bringing passenger rail to more people across the nation." He underscored the administration's will "to move quickly to advance these projects."

Speaking to Axios on HBO on Saturday, Flynn called the funding "absolutely transformational" and said it would spur the largest-ever expansion of Amtrak in the railroad's history. Flynn cited new routes to Columbus, Ohio; Los Angeles to Las Vegas; Phoenix to Tucson; and service into Nashville as among the first projects on the roster.

Expanding infrastructure for electric vehicles

The infrastructure bill also earmarks $7.5 billion to expand the nation's charging network for electric vehicles. The U.S. currently supports 122,000 charging ports at 48,000 stations nationwide, according to the Department of Energy.

The Biden administration aims through this funding to expand that network to 500,000 charging ports by 2030. The official White House website called this aspect of the bill a "critical element" in the administration's plan to accelerate the adoption of EVs to address the climate crisis.

As part of the companion Build Back Better bill, the administration has baked in significant rebates for EV purchases that could motivate car rental providers to transition their fleets. Those rebates only will kick in if Congress can muster the votes to pass the companion legislation.

Not all parties had unmitigated support for the bill, however. American Hotel & Lodging Association CEO Chip Rogers, while acknowledging the need for U.S. travel infrastructure to remain globally competitive, was unhappy with how the bill would fund elements of the plan.

"Reliable and modern infrastructure is vital to the hotel industry because it facilitates travel, commerce and American competitiveness. This package would go a long way toward achieving those ends, but it comes at a steep cost," Rogers said. "The bill would terminate the Employee Retention Tax Credit two months early. Many hotels and their employees are counting on this program -- especially given lingering Covid-19 concerns and the negative economic impact they are having on hotels.

"While we strongly support investment in our nation's infrastructure, struggling hotel employees and small businesses should not be forced to bear that cost, and AHLA will continue advocating to maintain programs that are helping hoteliers through the pandemic."

President Biden on Nov. 6 focused many of his comments on the bigger picture wherein infrastructure improvements would not only rebuild U.S. frameworks and systems but would also create jobs. He also adhered closely to messaging that the ultimate success of the infrastructure bill would require the passage in mid-November of the sweeping $1.85 trillion Build Back Better social spending plan, which remains in question.

Banking on the passage of that bill, he predicted, "Generations from now, people will look back and know this is when America won the economic competition for the 21st century."

Source: Business Travel News

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