Most Americans take it for granted that we can travel just about wherever we need to go—whether by car, plane, or any of the public transportation options at our disposal.
The thing is, the latter option—public transport—has been in need of a major overhaul for a long time. Not to get overly political, but America’s investment in her infrastructure has faltered over the years and seen other world powers—namely Japan and China—overtake us with high-speed rail, bullet trains, and other futuristic innovations.
Indeed, an American high-speed rail system has been the apple of many politicians’ eyes for years now: back in January, President Obama described a 25-year plan that would provide 80% of American citizens with access to high-speed rail, which could cut down travel time to certain parts of the country by half, when compared to travel by bus or car.
Let’s side-step the politics for a moment and move on to the reasons why these ambitions have proved to be so elusive—as well as the ways that the private sector is doing what the government cannot.
It might be tempting to blame partisan bickering for this gridlock, but in this case there are a number of other, more practical factors at work as well.
Chief among them is the sheer hugeness of the United States. Simply put, our major cities are far apart and our population is not as densely packed as some of the countries we’re now directly competing with.
Another limiting factor is the physical layout of our major cities. The truth is that cities like Pittsburg and my native Harrisburg are simply not laid out with pedestrians in mind. Certain sections are highly walkable, but significant challenges remain: even if you could travel between major cities by rail, you’re still going to be scrambling for transportation to complete the final few miles of your journey.
Lastly, yes, we do have to acknowledge that our lame-duck Congress has dropped the ball repeatedly when it comes to making significant investments in our infrastructure. Our transportation trust fund is essentially broke, meaning we couldn’t invest in high-speed rail even if we wanted to.
The Private Sector Steps Up
One of the crowning achievements of this country is being a place where the private and public sectors can complement each other brilliantly sometimes. Public transportation technology is one area where this kind of duality is working in our favor; even as Congress spins its wheels, innovative countries are finding ways to expand our transportation system.
In Florida, proposals for rail systems include All Aboard Florida’s bid to link South and Central Florida using hundreds of miles of active rail. In Nevada and Texas, similar proposals are also gaining ground, though a lack of compromise can, on occasion, delay things for a while.
And lest we forget, Elon Musk’s wildly ambitious Hyperloop is still making strong progress as well, and could bring a sea change in the way we travel in this country. Even more traditional transportation methods, such as ordinary automobiles and the venerable Blue Bird bus, are being updated with emerging technologies like engines that run on renewable fuel and sensors that allow the car to drive itself safely from Point A to Point B.
Weighing the Costs
There’s little doubt that building a high-speed rail system to link the two coasts of the United States would be a significant challenge—and an expensive one, at that. Moreover, it hasn’t exactly been a banner year for rail travel, with Congress still scrambling to assign blame for the recent Amtrak collision outside Philadelphia.
The good news is that there seems to be a consensus on the fact that modern safety technology could have prevented the tragedy—technology that has been implemented, and used successfully, in other sections of track in the country. The missing link was human error, which vindicates not just the fundamental technologies being used here, but also the inherent safety of traveling by train.
It would seem, then, that what’s holding us back now is the will to make progress. Spend a day at Hoover Dam and you’ll see a literally awesome example of the kind of pioneering spirit we’ll need to embrace once again to make this happen.
Whether or not we ever mount another project as hugely ambitious as Hoover Dam, though, it’s clear that American ingenuity is alive and well all across the country.