A Lesson for Passenger Rail, From Roads

A look back at the building of millions of miles of roads shows why passenger rail needs a well-structured bureaucracy in order to succeed.
by | December 2011

For those who support and believe in the possibilities of train travel in this country, these have been frustrating times.

After having our hopes raised by President Obama, who managed after being elected to get a Democratically controlled Congress to appropriate more than $10 billion for high-speed rail, the new, more Republican-oriented Congress has granted virtually nothing to intercity rail travel, although Amtrak funding continues. Once again, the future of better intercity train travel in this country is in doubt. And state and local officials are left to scramble, dealing with on-again, off-again funding and policy.

Why is it so hard to get sustained and steady commitment, within a coherent policy framework, for fast and efficient train service in this country? Many, many other countries have done it. Why can’t we?

To answer this question, it’s worth reading an excellent new book on what may seem at first an unrelated subject. The Big Roads, written by Earl Swift, an old colleague of mine from when I worked at The Virginian-Pilot, covers the American experience of building millions of miles of roads across the country over the last century.

Although we take this network of roads and highways for granted now, it was not an easy task. Nor was there necessarily one way to go about it. Local, state and federal governments, along with private interests, debated and studied different ways of planning and building roads, including how the necessary bureaucracy should be structured. Should counties, states or the federal government take the lead? The current mix -- strong state road -- building departments with federal supervision and local consultation—was not a foregone conclusion.

The book explains why bureaucracy matters. While Ford and General Motors were getting the headlines in the 1920s, it was local, state and federal officials that were substantially shaping the country’s road network.

One of the best of these public officials was Thomas H. MacDonald, the head of the Bureau of Public Roads -- today’s U.S. Department of Transportation -- from 1919 to 1953. MacDonald was an engineer and a bureaucrat’s bureaucrat. He was modest, self-effacing and amazingly competent. He let politicians take the credit even while his accurate and comprehensive research led them by the nose to particular conclusions, such as with his agency’s landmark 1939 study discouraging pay-per-use roads. In MacDonald’s opinion, says Swift, free roads “were a birthright akin to free public schooling.”

But what does this have to do with train travel? In the last century, local, state and federal governments not only built roads, they built up departments of transportation to plan, construct and manage those roads. This took a long time, and was more important really than the asphalt and pathways of the roads themselves, because without this policy infrastructure, the physical infrastructure could not have happened.

The tiny Bureau of Public Roads started in the late 19th century under the federal Department of Agriculture, after lobbying by bicyclists, eager for paved surfaces, led to its creation. In the early decades of the car, it appeared that private interests might take the lead in constructing a road network. Take 1913’s Lincoln Highway, which stretched from New York to San Francisco. It was planned by a private group but built with a combination of funding from public and private sources.

After World War I, support grew for government to take the lead, but who would be in charge? There were big turf battles. Some wanted a network of national roads built and owned by the federal government. The Federal Highway Act of 1921 resolved these questions by setting up the system of state-owned but federally coordinated road networks that we still have today. Each decade, major policies frameworks had to be set, including, for example, whether U.S. highways should have names or numbers.

We are just beginning to go through this with high-speed train travel. We have only a rudimentary public bureaucracy dedicated to train travel. This is because in the 19th century, the United States was unusual in encouraging private railroad companies to take the lead in mapping, building and controlling our train routes. This was a fateful decision.

Other industrializing countries, such as France, Germany and Great Britain, had government take the lead, even if private companies were involved. These public bureaucracies stayed in place and evolved over the 20th century, which made building the higher-speed trains and networks in the modern era possible. (Click here to read more on this experience.)

The more I study transportation, the more I’m convinced that bureaucratic infrastructure is more important than technological infrastructure. If we are to improve train travel in this country, then we will have to devote effort to adapting institutions such as Amtrak, the Federal Railroad Administration and countless state transportation departments, now largely oriented toward highways, to the task of planning and constructing regional high-speed train networks.

With luck, we’ll get there.

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