» America 2050 releases a report comparing potential rail investments across the country. But political leadership, not scientific analysis, will be what advances the construction of new infrastructure in the United States.
There is something very appealing about the idea that governmental authorities could go about establishing strict, empirically defined guidelines based on “objectives” or “targets” and thereafter identify and fund the right investments in transportation. The argument made by many reformers is that such a system could allow federal, state, and local governments in the United States to use “objective” measures to compare and contrast potential investments and then fund only those that meet the highest standards.
This, in some ways, is what America 2050 is attempting to do in its most recent publication, High-Speed Rail in America. By analyzing several thousand corridors crisscrossing the nation in respect to such factors as population, employment, connectivity, congestion, and job types, the organization strives to show which corridors would be best for rail investment. The results — which rank highly such connections as Washington-New York, Los Angeles-San Diego, and Chicago-Milwaukee — are reassuring to those who have already identified those corridors as priorities. The report’s conclusion implies that the next step is simply to move forward, funding the links that would be most effective.*
If only it were so simple.
Why are California, Florida, and Illinois investing billions of dollars in rail upgrades today while other states, like New York and Pennsylvania, doing almost nothing? Not because the projects in the former states were more rational investments according to federal government grant-givers; indeed, the America 2050 report gives much higher marks to lines between Philadelphia and Harrisburg and New York and Albany than those between Chicago and St. Louis or Tampa and Orlando, for instance.
Rather, leadership in some states has been lacking; state officials in places like New York have been unwilling to commit the local funds or rights-of-way to their respective rail projects, so they have not received real backing from Washington. Perhaps this would be a problem in a perfect world, but we live in a society in which politics matter. If Florida eventually commits to a high-speed rail line, it will be because previous leadership in the form of Governor Charlie Crist made the deals to make it possible and current Governor Rick Scott agreed.
These are ultimately decisions founded on local support for a project: No matter what a scientific approach may suggest, the only way high-speed rail can advance in this country is by having charismatic leaders promote good projects that appeal to the citizenry. If that sometimes means building projects that are less cost-effective than others, then so be it.
In the American federal system, Washington cannot easily come down from high-up and inform rural states and non-urban jurisdictions that they simply do not qualify for intercity rail funds. Such an approach, like it or not, would not fly in a Congress that is dominated by politicians from rural states and suburban districts. Nor can the government simply announce that it wants to fund one or two lines, like a link between Washington and Boston, because doing so would fly in the face of the idea of a national network, essential for any federal investment. So releasing a report like America 2050’s is inconceivable for the national Department of Transportation unless it wants to have its funding eliminated by the legislature.
There are several conceivable ways to avoid this problem: One, assuming the federal government continues its commitment to the high-speed rail mode, it could simply draw a map of thousands of miles of lines connecting the country and agree to fund every one. This, more or less, was how the Interstate Highway System was conceived and built — and it had nothing to do with the “objective” guidelines that underlie the America 2050 report but everything to do with ensuring that every state in the union got its share.
Two, Washington could fund nothing at all, giving up in face of the insurmountable difficulty of trying to convince legislators from Oklahoma to fund rail projects in Oregon. This could encourage states or groups of states to go about funding projects themselves, a perfectly reasonable possibility, but one that may be difficult in an era in which the idea of state-level government entrepreneurship is absent from the discussion.
Or, finally, the federal government could continue awarding grants to the states that are most enthusiastic about their respective rail projects and hope that members of Congress don’t get too upset about the fact that their states aren’t getting anything. This seems to be the most likely path forward, but it will not likely result in major funding increases for a high-speed rail network since the national consensus in favor of it has yet to be cultivated.
No matter what, the road forward on establishing high-speed rail strategy in the United States is likely to be a bumpy one. While reports like America 2050’s may add to the momentum, helping to demonstrate some of the mode’s advantages, they do not provide the basis for a nationwide system by which to judge and then fund new lines. That will only come from leadership, both in Washington and in the state capitals.
* The High-Speed Rail in America report has its flaws. The report’s authors note the following:
“Instead of evaluating and comparing precise ridership estimates from the states (e.g. X riders in California versus Y riders in Texas) based on inadequate data and varying assumptions, we propose an alternative assessment framework that considers the various factors or parameters that influence ridership without attempting to pinpoint ridership explicitly.”
The fundamental problem with the report is that it has no context: The study lays down a number of parameters for comparison, such as regional population, transit connectivity, and the like, but it does not have any empirical data to show the relatively importance of these criteria in real-world high-speed rail networks. In other words, the authors have set about comparing corridors in a manner that may — or, just as likely, may not — have anything to do with actual ridership. (This is a mistake I’ve made in the past, I admit.)
In the future, such a study should be backed by evidence about the importance of each of these criteria based on ridership on other countries’ systems. It would also be beneficial to include cost evaluations — for instance, if a New York-Boston line would attract twice as many riders per mile as one between Tampa and Orlando, the America 2050 report implies that the former is a better deal than the latter. But what if the Florida line cost less than half as much per mile as the Northeastern one?
Image above: Spanish countryside along AVE route, from Flickr user Laura Padgett (cc)