Channeling fellow Chicagoan Daniel Burnham, President Obama called for the nation to “make no little plans” last week when he called for a new network of high-speed rail lines that would connect the country’s major population centers from coast to coast. Such a project would be funded by the economic stimulus package that the president signed into law in February, $8 billion of which has been allocated for high-speed rail.
While Continental Europe and Japan have embraced this kind of high-speed mass transit, the United States has largely lagged behind. Federal investment in inter-city rail transit has amounted to only a few billion dollars per year, as compared to a bit less than $60 billion per year for highway funding. Currently, there is only one high-speed rail corridor in the country: Amtrak’s Acela line, which runs from Washington, D.C., to Boston. Its trains (according to the New York Times) are capable of racing along at a Continental 150 miles per hour, but are usually restricted to just over half this speed because of track conditions and other rail traffic.
In this new network, a hub of lines will extend out from Chicago, as far west as Kansas City and as far east as Cleveland. On the West Coast, a line will link San Diego to San Francisco, and tracks will run from Portland, Ore., to Vancouver, B.C. Austin will be linked to Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and a line will run across the Southeast from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta, further south to Jacksonville, Fla. The Federal Railroad Administration’s Web site has diagrams and route maps here.
Of all the building and construction funding derived from the economic stimulus package and from the AIA’s Rebuild and Renew advocacy plan, high-speed rail is probably one of the most big-picture and patience-testing agendas. It won’t have the immediate neighborhood impact of increased funding for affordable housing or energy efficiency retrofits for schools, but its long-term payoff is serious and incontrovertible. Better high-speed rail networks will increase the development of sustainably dense, mass transit-designed neighborhoods at an urban scale that exists across entire states. The success of the plan will rest on the government’s public relations campaign to convince people who don’t live near city centers that high-speed rail is a worthy investment.
The transition from mass train travel to individual automobile ownership was seen as a wild triumph of American ingenuity and a definitive move forward for our nation when it was completed in the middle of the 20th century. I feel that we are loath to even consider backsliding away from any perceived triumph, no longer how rooted in obsolete economic and industrial contexts it might be. Since then, many Americans have seen interstate rail travel as an anachronism kept alive by a government subsidy, even though the carbon consuming qualities of cars are coming into focus more painfully every day. If the Obama Administration, the Department of Transportation, and perhaps a few clever architects can make the case that a step back to rail travel is really a move forward, they’ll have carved out a space for economic and industrial revisionism that will go a long ways towards making our economy conform to the requirements of the contemporary sustainability movement.