Is America Ready to “Think Big” Again?

I ran across an article on high-speed trains today, and it got me thinking.

Back in the 1800s, trains fundamentally changed the U.S. and spread people and goods across the country. For the very first time, hundreds of miles could be covered in hours, not days or weeks, and in relative comfort. We forget how revolutionary that was and how it changed the distribution of our population.

Perry Seal

Perry Seal, Product Manager, Manufacturer Experience

The next big step didn’t happen till the introduction and then acceptance of the automobile. Cars (and roads) created suburbs, allowing people to commute daily to jobs that were far from where they lived. Again, a significant shift occurred: People could work in the city and come home to a quiet neighborhood with lawns, trees, and a slower pace. But that freedom came at a steep taxpayer price.Today, we take the interstate highways we travel on for granted, but they’re as recent as the Eisenhower administration. While Eisenhower deplored high taxes, he recognized the long-term benefit of investing in America. Many feel this network of roads are his greatest legacy, and he is remembered as one of our country’s exceptional leaders.

The original plan, in 1956, was for 42,795 miles of interstate highway, at a construction cost of $128.9 billion[1]–in 1950s dollars. To bring that number up to date, multiply that number by nine. My calculator doesn’t have that many digits.

This was an enormous project, but it fundamentally changed the way we travel and think of the country in which we live. Driving to a different state was no longer a long and arduous journey over semi- and unpaved roads, it was just a few hours away and smooth.

1931 Ford Model A

Image courtesy of tmgenealogy.com

And though it was an enormous undertaking, it also paid long term dividends. According to HistoryNet.com, the project had a “return rate of $6 for every $1 spent on highway construction.”[2]

Now, almost 60 years later, the next transformative change in transportation and its affect on how and where we live may be coming. Finally.

High-speed trains are nothing new–we’ve all grown up hearing about them and seeing video streamed from Japanese TV–but the technology never quite took hold here in the U.S.

Some say we love our cars too much; we value our independence and self-determined schedules more than the promise of super-fast transportation. That’s fair, since riding any public transportation requires you to plan your day around someone else’s schedule.

But think about the opportunity a high-speed rail system presents. The one Japan is offering to help us fund uses a technology called magnetic levitation, or “Maglev” for short. This low-friction system is capable of speeds well over 300 miles per hour, making it the Ferrari of the train world.  It would cut the trip between Baltimore and Washington D.C. from 45 minutes (by Amtrak) down to 15 minutes. In fact, if that Maglev system connected Boston to Washington, (over 450 miles), that trip would be about one (1) hour. It would also cost the better part of a trillion dollars. That’s trillion with a “T.”

However, the Maglev “Ferrari” system isn’t the only option. Some are on the fanciful side, such as Elon Musk’s “Hyperloop[3],” but there are already High Speed Rail projects underway in the U.S., most notably in California, where I grew up.

Maglev Train

Image courtesy of smartplanet.com

The high-speed rail system (which was bid out on iSqFt) will connect Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area, the Central Valley, Los Angeles, the Inland Empire, Orange County, and San Diego, and it’ll do it at speeds up to 220 miles per hour.[4] The goals for this system are lofty, to be sure: increase mobility, add transportation capacity, relieve traffic congestion, reduce emissions and improve air quality.

But if those aren’t reason enough to drop nearly $70 billion, consider that construction of the California rail project is projected to create 160,000 new construction jobs, and 450,000 new permanent jobs4. This is a project close to my heart. I’m from the Bay Area, and friends, I’ve seen traffic, and I’ve paid A LOT of money for a gallon of gas.

California governor Jerry Brown points out that without investments like this, we risk falling behind. “The new rail system will allow California to keep pace with a league of important countries that are investing in high speed rail,” including Germany, England, France, Japan and others.[5]

Brown has also been quoted as saying that after a period of “massive retrenchment,” he “would like to be part of the group that gets America to think big again.”

If you look back at our country’s history of big, bold projects—including the intercontinental rail system, the Panama Canal, the Hoover Dam, interstate highways, and landing on the moon—and you search the history books for modern equivalents, one has to wonder if we still have the appetite for investment on that scale.

Do we? Is high speed rail or Maglev the right investment? Do the benefits of a high-speed rail system outweigh the costs? Given all of this, are high-speed trains the next phase in the evolution of travel? Or will this technology be obsolete before the first ticket is purchased, making this an almost incalculable waste of our resources?

What do you think? I really want to know.


[1] U.S. Department of Transportation: “Interstate FAQ

[2] HistoryNet.com: “Dwight D. Eisenhower

[3] Forbes: “A Southern California Startup Is Trying To Jump-Start Elon Musk’s Hyperloop”

[4] San Francisco County Travel Authority: “California High-speed Rail Project”

[5] State Building & Construction Trades Council of California: “Gov. Jerry Brown Reiterates Strong Support for High Speed Rail.”