The problem isn't geography, demographics, or money—it's federal will.
By Yonah Freemark, August 13, 2014
Virtually every wealthy nation in the world has invested in a
high-speed rail network—with the striking exception of the United
States. From Japan to France, even from Turkey to Russia,
trains travel through the country at speeds of 150 miles per hour or
above, linking city centers and providing a desirable alternative to
both air and automobile travel. Meanwhile, outside Amtrak's 28 miles of
150-m.p.h. track in rural Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the American
rail network is largely limited to speeds of 110 m.p.h. or less. There
are few reasons to think the situation will change much in the coming
So why has the United States failed to fund and construct high-speed rail?
The problem is not political process. Most of the countries that have
built high-speed rail are democratic, and have submitted the projects
to citizen review; others, like Germany and Russia, have federated
governments similar to ours that divide general decision-making between
levels of authority. Nor is it geography. The British and French
completed a 31-mile tunnel
under the British Channel 20 years ago, while many American cities are
located in flat regions with few physical construction obstacles. Nor is
it the characteristics of our urban areas. While U.S. cities are less
dense than those of many other countries, the Northeast is denser, more
transit reliant, and more populated than most areas served by high-speed rail abroad. Nor still is it money. Though the United States invests less in infrastructure
than other developed countries do, America nevertheless remains an
immensely wealthy nation perfectly capable of spending on new rail links
What's missing is a federal commitment
to a well-funded national rail plan. Instead, we have a political
system in which the federal government, having devolved virtually all
decision-making power to states, cannot prioritize one project over
another in the national interest. We have a funding system that encourages study after study
of unfundable or unbuildable projects in places that refuse to commit
their own resources. And we have a bureaucracy that, having never
operated or constructed modern intercity rail, doesn't understand what
it takes. This helter-skelter approach to transportation improvements is
fundamentally incapable of supporting large-expenditure, long-range projects like high-speed rail.
This wasn't always the case. In 1956, Congress approved
a significant increase in the federal gas tax, and with it a national
plan for interstate highways. That plan, which included a steady stream
of funding and a clear map of national priorities, was mostly completed
over the next three decades.
Though implemented by states, highway
alignments were chosen at the national level, with the intention of
connecting the largest cities, regardless of political boundaries.
Funding came almost entirely (90 percent)
from the national government and was guaranteed as long as a route was
on the national map. Physical requirements for roadways were mandated at the national level
and universally applied. And construction was completed by state
departments of transportation that were technically knowledgeable,
accustomed to building such public works, and able to make decisions
about how to move forward.
The result was a system of roadways that most Americans rely on,
often daily. The interstate system is unquestionably the nation's
Yet Americans do not have the same perspective on the role of the
federal government that they had when this highway system was initially
funded. Trust in Washington has declined from more than 70 percent during the 1950s to less than 20 percent today. So while President Dwight Eisenhower declared in 1955
that the federal government should "assume principal responsibility"
for the highway system, its approach to a high-speed rail network has
reflected this change in public thinking about Washington's place in
transportation planning. The response has been to reduce the federal
government's ability to commit to a long-term plan and associated
Recent efforts to revive this federal role have been seriously flawed. Take the Obama administration's attempt at a national plan of proposed intercity rail investments in 2009.
For starters, the map's proposed routes were vague, a number of important connections were not identified,
and some routes appeared to have been chosen at random—simply the
consequence of previous state studies with no national outlook. Funding
had been dedicated through an initial $8 billion
included in the stimulus bill, but there was certainly no guarantee
that railways on that map would be built in the long term. The
definition of "high-speed rail" was not applied universally; the
administration proposed some links at 90 m.p.h.
and others at more than 250 m.p.h., with no explanation for why some
would be fast and others not. Finally, many of the states that were
supposed to be implementing these projects were woefully unprepared for
the task, having made few such investments in the past. None had the
experience of building 200 m.p.h. electric railways to the international
Such an approach to national transportation doesn't work. It leaves
too many planning questions open to state decision making, and it fails
to offer a financing source that actually produces the funds needed for
intercity rail. Far from fulfilling Eisenhower's mandate of assuming
principal responsibility, the latest high-speed rail plan assumed too little.
But the need is still there. With falling automobile vehicle miles traveled, rising transit use,
and booming city centers, we need new ways to connect our cities. More
highways are not the answer, not only because they pollute the
environment and destroy the neighborhoods they pass through, but also
because they're relatively slow and become congested almost as soon as
they're built. With a growing population, the country needs an expanded
transportation system. The United States must invest in clean, neighborhood-building, and congestion-relieving trains, but we cannot expect states to pick up the slack of an uncertain federal government.
The planning and funding of the interstate highway system was
premised on the fact that the travel needs of Americans occur
irrespective of state lines. Indeed, the 50 largest metropolitan areas,
representing more than half of the country's population, are located in
31 separate states and 15 of them actually straddle state borders. Given
this reality, it would be ridiculous to plan an intercity
transportation system at the state level. California's high-speed rail
progress—its proposed San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line
remains the only truly fast train project in the country—is the
exception that proves the rule; that state's size makes it no example
for the rest of the nation.
It's time for the United States to commit to national planning,
funding, coordination, and prioritization of rail investment. Intercity
transportation systems require active federal engagement to guarantee
the development of routes that reflect national needs and national
priorities. Yet without political consensus on the need to develop
national goals and focus investments, high-speed rail will remain a
pipe-dream for decades to come.
y, the latest high-speed rail plan assumed too