When Congress and the White House had finished eviscerating this year’s budget, one of the programs left glistening on the floor was high-speed rail, which lost at least $1.4 billion in the short term and much of its hope for the future. For two years, President Obama has been promising that ultrafast trains will one day ease the pressure on sclerotic airports and lighten the load of carbon spewed by cars. That vision inspired some passive support and plenty of passionate hostility—several Republican governors made a show of refusing Washington’s rail-directed billions, which they saw as a socialistic boondoggle and a radical attempt to force Americans out of their cars. The real problem, though, is not that the president’s bullet-train agenda was too sweeping. It’s that it’s been far too timid.
Transportation networks help nations forge their identities. Before the Civil War, railroads bound the corners of the North American continent into a whole just as the Union was coming apart. In recent decades, high-speed-rail lines have probably done more than the euro to make Europe feel unified, and they’ve been knitting China together just as that nation embraces its new role as an economic superpower. But the transportation project that shaped the consciousness of contemporary America was the top-down, hugely expensive, neo–New Dealish project called the Interstate Highway System, promoted and signed into law by President Eisenhower in 1956. The 47,000 miles of interstate and its uniform net of rest stops and interchanges allowed Americans to feel more independent and fed the romance of the open road. The highways made the car a member of the family and nurtured sprawl as drivers fanned out into the hinterlands, along highways paid for by Washington.
Both advocates and opponents of high-speed rail try to portray it as a challenge to the highway’s primacy. Those in favor dream of emptier roads and less-carbonated skies; those against foresee a less mobile, more regimented country, bound by tracks and schedules. But Obama’s incremental approach has barely inched toward either of those futures. Hedging against the accusation that he’s pursuing hugely expensive programs that the country doesn’t need and can’t afford, the president has proposed short stretches of track in places they don’t belong. Shaving a few minutes off the 85-mile trip from Orlando to Tampa—the route that Governor Rick Scott of Florida scuttled—would hardly have been worth the effort. Meanwhile, along the more train-friendly Northeast corridor, laying fresh track for genuine high-speed rail has proved too ambitious, so the government has settled for paying to fix up overburdened lines and nudge the sluggish Acela.
The bi-partisan effort to paint modest, if costly, steps as revolutionary has set back the pursuit of a more genuinely transformative goal: a comprehensive public-transit network so reliable and convenient that nearly every American could take it and most actually would. It’s ironic that high-speed rail is succumbing just as the price of oil begins to leap again, making efficient door-to-door public transit more crucial than ever. But perhaps gas prices will eventually achieve what politics cannot and bring about an America where most people live within walking distance of a rapid-transit bus or trolley-line stop, from which they can access subways and ferries and updated airports and, yes, some very fast trains. That vision is as pragmatic as it is revolutionary and, unlike the sideshow that materialized around high-speed rail, would give supporters something real to get excited about and opponents something meaningful to hate.