Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Can We Still Do Great Things? High-speed Rail And The American Future

This is the first in an occasional series of commentaries by Reconnecting America's staff about pressing issues of transportation and communities.
Darnell Chadwick Grisby

Darnell Chadwick Grisby

Our founding fathers sparred over the federal interest in funding infrastructure. In fact, the battle over it helped jumpstart partisan rivalry in America. The Federalist Party—created by Alexander Hamilton—supported federal funding and support for “internal improvements,” which we know as infrastructure today. The Democratic Republicans—created by Thomas Jefferson—vehemently disagreed. The nation would have been vastly different, if not for the outcome of these earlier contests.

Those who supported federal infrastructure investments prevailed, and a bipartisan consensus in support of infrastructure developed. President Lincoln, a Republican, built the Transcontinental Railroad and made it a priority—in the middle of fighting the Civil War. Another Republican President, Dwight Eisenhower, approved what may be the largest infrastructure project in human history—the Interstate Highway System.

This consensus remained strong even as transportation technology evolved, with widespread support for federal funding to develop an airline industry, as well as early bipartisan support for high-speed rail.

What we may be experiencing now is the first breakdown of the bipartisan infrastructure consensus in almost 100 years. It comes at a time when the economy needs a considerable reset, which will require significant investment in new transportation technologies. The federal government is the only entity that has the ability to fund and incentivize this level of change.

However, with a return to late 18th century politics, the federal government will be unable to provide direction and organization for an economy that is in profound need. This means that technologies like high-speed rail, which will be able to reorient our metropolitan and micropolitan areas into integrated regional economies, will be implemented with fits and starts and over a longer timeframe.

The world is full of nations ready to compete for the best minds and companies by providing the best functioning cities and most efficient governments. For a nation such as America, which has consistently been at the forefront of change, suddenly to lose its way, begs the question: Will our newly partisan politicians allow us to do great things again, or have we already reached our apogee as a world power?