Barriers to High Speed Rail in the US

Photo of high speed rail in Taiwan by dhchen

The New York Times had an interesting article over the weekend on the state of Florida’s recent rejection of federal money to build a high speed rail line between Orlando and Tampa.

This comes on the heels of gubernatorial elections in Wisconsin and Ohio where anti-rail governors who were elected last year similarly rejected federal money.

In spite of the fact that there is strong public support for high speed rail and that rail and public transit have a positive economic impact, the development of this key infrastructure is stagnating.

What are the reasons for this stagnation–particularly when governments overseeing advanced and growing economies in Europe and Asia have less problems generating political consensus around this public investment?

My sense is that much of the problem can be attributed to two factors: 1) the lack of a real coherent national transportation policy and 2) the peculiar decision-making structure of our federalist system.

The second point is quite apparent given the outlandish power that single states have to negatively impact regional plans.   This stems from the fact that the federal government largely defers to states to determine their transportation plans.  In terms of capital improvements like high-speed rail,  states determine plans and federal money is allocated to the extent that projects conform to state plans.

This, of course, is reflective of the first point: the federal government does not have a proper “national plan” nor does it engage in the crucial decision making necessary to implement a serious national rail vision.

Sure, the USDOT develops national plans, but they are secondary to the states when it comes to rail.  In the words of the 2009 National Rail Plan [pdf], the legislative mandate for USDOT planning is “to develop the plan consistent with approved State plans” (23)–not vice versa.

This distinction is crucial.  How can you have a national infrastructure system which is the product of 50 bottom-up decisions.  We can see the impact this might have in a region like the Midwest, where states like Illinois and Minnesota will be negatively impacted by unilateral decisions made in Ohio and Wisconsin.

The feds could deal with this barrier, but it won’t be easy.  Congress would have to pass legislation restricting state autonomy–something that wouldn’t have much support in the current political climate in Washington.

Until this happens, however, high speed rail is likely to be stuck on a slow track.