PHILADELPHIA >> President Joe Biden returned today to a place that is nearly as attached to his identity as his decadeslong pursuit of the presidency: an Amtrak station.
This time, however, Biden was not kicking off a presidential campaign from the back of a train in Wilmington, Delaware, as he did in 1987. He barely had time to rub shoulders with commuters, a daily tradition during his decades in the Senate.
And he flew into town on Air Force One.
“I’ve been riding an Amtrak almost as long as there’s been an Amtrak,” Biden said from a podium in the rail yard, where he marked the rail service’s 50th anniversary and reminisced about a conductor named Angelo who would call him “Joey, baby!” and squeeze his cheeks.
The president came to Philadelphia to pitch his $2 trillion infrastructure proposal that critics say is too sprawling, with spending on disparate topics like broadband and care for older and disabled Americans as well as on projects meant to combat racial disparities. His appearance today was a message to Republicans that his plan includes plenty of money for more traditional projects, like railroads and bridges.
Biden’s economic proposal calls for an $80 billion funding increase for rail projects, including improvements to Amtrak’s high-traffic corridor from Washington to Boston and expanded service to 160 communities, including Las Vegas; Nashville, Tennessee; Atlanta; and Houston.
The agency normally receives nearly $2 billion in yearly congressional appropriations. Republicans have countered with $20 billion for railroad investment.
The president spent much of his pitch by reflecting on his connection to Amtrak.
He began riding the train in the earliest days of the patched-together federal railroad in the 1970s, when he traveled home to Delaware every night to care for his two sons, Hunter and Beau, after his wife and infant daughter were killed in a car crash.
Many politicians have emphasized their workaday origins. (The image of Abraham Lincoln as a rail-splitter was an early campaign ad.) Biden earned his nickname as “Amtrak Joe” from making an estimated 8,000 round trips on the line. He often sat in a window seat, reading the newspaper by the morning light en route to the Capitol.
He would chat with others along for the ride, including Gregg Weaver, a retired Amtrak worker whose son Blake Weaver described the president Friday as “one of Amtrak’s most frequent riders.”
Gregg Weaver said Biden always asked about his children and parents.
He was “just another passenger on the train,” Weaver said.
But Biden offered some perks. He would invite some Amtrak employees to Christmas parties in his Delaware home. When he began riding with a presidential entourage, he often apologized to fellow passengers for the lack of space and admonished reporters who blocked the pathway to seats.
Biden was quick to remind the crowd of Amtrak employees, members of Congress and local officials that Friday’s trip was not his first visit to the William H. Gray III 30th Street Station.
“It’s probably because I took the late train back from Washington and I slept through the Delaware stop,” he said. “I only did it about four times.”
Biden also referred to his history defending the rail service on the Senate floor. When the Bush administration proposed a restructuring of Amtrak that would have relied on states to pick up some of its deficit, he called it “cockamamie.”
In 2016, he announced a federal loan that would pay for a new high-speed Acela. One such train was stationed behind him as he spoke today.
He had even planned to re-create his 90-minute trip from Wilmington to Washington for his swearing-in as president, but that was canceled over security concerns.
Just as he did this week during his first address to a joint session of Congress, Biden emphasized how the investments would not only combat climate change, but also create jobs. He made a direct appeal to blue-collar workers in his speech to Congress, saying 90% of the jobs created under his plan would not require a college degree.
Today, Biden said encouraging more people to ride Amtrak rather than driving cars or trucks would benefit the environment. The plan to expand service would also connect big cities, and employment opportunities, to underserved communities, he argued.
“It’s going to provide jobs and it will also accommodate jobs,” the president said. “What this means is that towns and cities that have been in danger of being left out and left behind will be back in the game.”
But Biden’s attempts to expand Amtrak lines will face challenges. A growing debate over whether to restore service between Mobile, Alabama, and New Orleans could be a preview.
The White House says increased service will help reverse construction projects that have fueled racial disparities. But in Mobile, a city councilman, Joel Daves, said any city money spent to expand rail service in the Gulf Coast corridor was simply funding a “joy ride for the affluent.”