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High-Speed Rail’s True Barrier Isn't Money. It’s Space.

Private investors want to build bullet trains across America, but in too many cases they're having trouble finding right-of-way. There's a lot that state and local governments could do to help them along.

Rendering of the proposed high-speed rail line in Texas (Photo courtesy: Texas Central)
America is way behind on building high-speed rail. While nations like China and Spain have thousands of miles of high-speed rail in operation — and are building thousands more — all we've got is Amtrak's D.C.-to-Boston Acela Express, with its average operating speed of 70 mph.

Money is not the biggest problem, nor is lack of consumer demand. There have been federal allocations, and increasingly commitments by private investors, that aim to connect America's major cities by high-speed rail. The issue is space: The lines cannot be built because there's no designated right-of-way for them.

I have four recent examples, all with varying degrees of right-of-way trouble. California is the noted public one. Parts of its $98.5 billion project are under construction, but the full line connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco won't be completed in the foreseeable future due to political haggling, contracting cost overruns and, you guessed it, right-of-way issues. The state has had difficulty buying and assembling land, which doubled the project's real-estate costs along its San Joaquin Valley portion.

In Texas, a company called Texas Central Partners LLC wants to build a high-speed rail line connecting Dallas and Houston. Dubbed the Texas Central Project, some of it would run along existing highway and freight rail lines, but a portion of the route will have to be acquired through eminent domain. Because the rail line would be privately run, this would mean condemnations of private property for the gain of private interests. This has caused the project to face legal battles; first planned in 2013, it won't be completed until 2026, if at all.

A third example is more promising: Florida's Brightline train. Virgin Group and Fortress Investment Group have already built a passenger line, maxing out at 79 mph and mostly using existing, upgraded track, that connects Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. The investors have built residential towers along the route, imitating a common "value capture" city-building strategy that occurs abroad. Virgin wants to expand Brightline with higher-speed lines to Orlando, Disney World, Tampa and eventually Jacksonville, and is negotiating with the Florida Department of Transportation and the Central Florida Expressway Authority about leasing space along Interstate 4.

A fourth — and potentially successful — example is the XpressWest train that would connect Victorville in Southern California with Las Vegas. Also managed by Virgin Group, the high-speed rail project will run along the median of I-15 in California, thanks to a lease the firm recently entered into with the California Department of Transportation. Stuck in planning and financing hurdles since 2005, XpressWest's anticipated completion date is in 2023.

The public-private negotiations of right-of-way found in the latter two examples could be replicated nationwide. In fact, this is how America used to operate. Early railroads — including the first transcontinental one — were built with the help of federal land grants that provided contiguous right-of-way. Private companies then built and operated the lines, creating explosive service growth and making America a world leader in the industry.

When automobiles replaced railroads as the favorite passenger-transport option, the federal government facilitated this by funding interstate highways. The right-of-way clearance measures were often extreme — whole neighborhoods were destroyed — but while this episode is a stain on America's urban planning history, it did produce an efficient transport network that helped the country grow.

For high-speed rail, there could be just as much effort to provide right-of-way, and it wouldn't be nearly as disruptive. In fact, much of the right-of-way has already been cleared for the aforementioned roads and freight rail, and new passenger bullet trains could be built along these routes. It's just a matter of having private and public bureaucracies recognize this adjacent space and issue RFPs for it to be leased.

Brightline and XpressWest are early examples of how this could look, but they're just the start. Private investors have expressed interest in building high-speed rail between Baltimore and Washington, Portland, Ore., and Seattle, and D.C. and New York City. These projects could, theoretically, happen along highways that are already connecting the cities. It's time to make room for them.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.


A journalist who focuses on American urban issues. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @sbcrosscountry.
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