You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Why Has “Amtrak Joe” Turned His Back on Trains?

Fans once hoped Biden would revolutionize public transport. Instead, he’s prioritizing cars—and not very consistently, at that.

Biden speaks at a podium in front of a train.
Workers look on as President Joe Biden delivers remarks on his “Bidenomics” economic agenda and his Investing in America agenda at an Amtrak facility in New Castle County, Delaware, on November 6, 2023.

While campaigning for the presidency in 2020, Joe Biden promised, audaciously, to “spark the second great railroad revolution to propel our nation’s infrastructure into the future and help solve the climate emergency.” His famed love of trains had even earned the president a nickname: “Amtrak Joe.”

Now, in the midst of another heated election season, that railroad revolution hasn’t materialized. There are some modest steps being taken. Biden’s administration announced late last week that it will be disbursing $9.8 billion from the $1.2 trillion 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law to state and city public transit agencies to upgrade train, bus, and ferry travel around the country.* That’s great, given that public transit agencies are often badly underfunded and transportation remains the single largest sectoral source of emissions. The spending, though, is a drop in the bucket to what’s being spent on roads still overwhelmingly populated by gas guzzlers.

More than half of the $130 billion that has been distributed to states from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or IIJA, according to a recent analysis by Transportation for America, has gone toward highway expansions and repairs. In contrast to that roughly $70 billion spent on cars, only $25.6 billion prior to last Thursday’s announcement has been devoted to transit and passenger rail. The same analysis found states have been slower to release funds for mass transit projects. The IIJA is due to expire on September 30, 2026. If spending trends continue, Transportation for America projects that the IIJA could ultimately be responsible for emissions equivalent to running 48 coal-fired power plants for a full year.

Though Biden has certainly championed the bipartisan infrastructure law as one of his trademark achievements, Congress, not the White House, actually wrote the law; the White House doesn’t have much of a say over how states choose to spend IIJA funds. Yet the priorities reflected in the IIJA disbursements are pretty similar to ones the administration itself espouses. Electric vehicles have been a much more consistent centerpiece of the administration’s messaging around decarbonizing transportation—and its approach to climate policy more generally—than public transport has. In light of all that new highway spending, one might charitably argue that the administration simply intends to fill all those new and improved highways with E.V. equivalents; that’s not exactly an airtight vision for transportation-sector decarbonization, but it is, at least, a somewhat coherent one. That doesn’t seem to be the case, though.

While a swift switch to electric cars could help matters, the White House is now reportedly planning to weaken proposed tailpipe emissions regulations that were supposed to speed that transition, out of deference to automakers. Yet another rule now being finalized by the Department of Energy, spotted by E&E News, could undermine even the somewhat muted benefits of the new standards. That has to do with something called the “petroleum equivalency factor,” used to calculate how an E.V.’s power consumption compares to the miles per gallon of a gas-powered vehicle. That equivalency factor is then used to calculate car companies’ compliance with fuel economy standards. Those are structured so that companies can choose how to meet them across their entire fleet, rather than demand they produce a certain number of electric vehicles or hybrids.

The forthcoming rule—as initially proposed—would have changed the way the Department of Energy calculates the petroleum equivalency factor. The department’s initial proposal would have revised down the fuel economy rating of electric vehicles—in some cases quite dramatically. As E&E reports, the rules as they were initially proposed would have changed the fuel economy rating of Ford’s (electric) F150 Lightning to 67 mpg from 238 mpg. Essentially, this policy would have tightened the standards by which cars can be considered fuel efficient.

But because DOE announced last fall that it would take more comments on that rule—including from automakers—climate advocates are now worried the administration will weaken the rule. If so, that would be similar to the administration’s other industry-friendly walk-backs of its environmental policies that are now expected on clean car and power plant regulations.

Here’s why that almost impossibly wonky detail matters. Ford and other car companies need to ensure the cars they offer are in compliance with fuel economy standards on average across their entire fleet. U.S. automakers make their biggest profits on gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks and have struggled to make money off of E.V. models. Roughly speaking, then, offering a few E.V.s with arguably inflated fuel economy ratings juices those compliance numbers. So long as they make a couple of electric vehicles that make their fleet look more efficient, in other words, they can keep on selling gas guzzlers in ways not so dissimilar from business as usual.

On the whole, it seems like the White House prefers to offer carrots (incentives) rather than sticks (regulations) when it comes to transportation policy. Even this, though, can’t explain all their odd moves lately: If their goal was to get as many E.V.s on the road as possible, for example, they probably would not be going out of their way to find bizarre excuses for excluding cheaper, Chinese-made electric vehicles from making it onto U.S. roads. And if the goal is really to decarbonize the transportation sector, a much more effective way to do that would be by giving people an alternative to having to drive anywhere. The choice is pretty simple: The administration can work earnestly toward decarbonizing this country’s transportation sector, or it can meet every demand U.S. car companies make. It probably can’t do both.

* This article originally misstated the year that the bipartisan infrastructure law was passed.