An Infrastructure Plan for a Progressive Wave

Alstom next generation of high speed trains are called Avelia Liberty. (Alstom)

The Amtrak Cascades tragedy provided an opening for a certain troll-in-chief to promote his infrastructure plan. If the Republican infrastructure plan–which at one point proposed eliminating Amtrak service to 220 cities–was worth the paper it was written on, this could have been excused. It’s not though, and urbanists should respond with a real infrastructure plan that brings long lasting economic benefits and lowers our carbon emission trajectory.

Initially little was known about the president’s plan besides that it aimed to spend a trillion dollars and centered on privatizing roads and bridges. Likely many things with the president, the plan turned out to be smaller than advertised; now it’s just $200 billion and apparently no longer includes public-private partnerships. Regardless, the infrastructure plan appears dead on arrival because Republicans won’t be able to use their budget reconciliation trick to avoid a Democratic filibuster in the Senate.

To deal with Far Right control of the federal government, many cities and many urbanists have clung to a strategy of tackling problems on a local level and pretty much giving up on Congress. Getting important policies to strengthen cities and mitigate climate change passed on a city and county level is certainly wise. Nonetheless, we can’t give up on national politics–particularly at a time when the tides are turning and a window of opportunity could appear rather suddenly. Alabama electing a Democrat to the Senate shows big swings can happen rather unexpectedly.

If 2018 really is a progressive wave year, a more public-works-friendly Congress could be a reality sooner than we think. We shouldn’t be caught off guard. In fact, a clear plan to rejuvenate our country’s aging infrastructure and generate tons of jobs in the process could help win the day for Democrats and their allies. Widening freeways is seldom a wise investment; although, maintaining key arteries we already have to reduce the mounting maintenance backlog would likely be prudent. Rail infrastructure upgrades could improve freight mobility and passenger rail service, both of which have lower carbon emissions than highway-based alternatives.

Positive Train Control Everywhere

As it seems that Amtrak had yet another overspeeding derailment, it’s high time America invested to bring positive train control to every train. The safety feature tracks trains with GPS and intervenes when trains exceed speed limit heading into turns. It’s a standard feature in the European Union that America has dragged its feet in implementing, shirking at the costs. Last Monday’s derailment shows how costly this cavalier attitude toward safety can be: three deaths, about 100 injuries, 13 traincars wrecked, and a severely bruised freeway. Overspeeding crashes could be cured with automatic braking technology. Congress is set to require positive train control by the end of 2018 and talk of delaying the requirement for another two years will likely be cut short by this latest tragedy.

Expanding High-Speed Rail

It’s hard to envision America centuries from now without high-speed rail to handle a greater portion of our intercity travel. Air travel is carbon intensive and likely to become increasingly expensive. High-speed rail offers an energy-efficient, but still rapid alternative. Passenger rail is a very safe way to travel, especially when positive train control is in use. Even without it, rail travel was considerably safer than car travel, which each year kills more than 37,000 road users. Plans have already been hatched to implement a national high-speed rail network. Nobody has yet volunteered the many billions of dollars to make it a reality; although a few states are forging ahead with their own high speed plans.

The red lines are designated high speed corridors while the gray lines are conventional rail. (Federal Transit Administration)


Florida’s Brightline

Florida’s privately-run Brightline service is moving forward with track upgrades to connect Orlando and Miami with 120 mile per hour service. To make the next leap to higher speed and to connect more cities, Brightline likely hopes for greater federal support. That said, Florida’s rail public-private partnership provides an alternative model for other regions in case public funding is lacking: combine rail projects with station-adjacent real estate projects to leverage private investment.

Phase two will connect Miami and Orlando, a distance of about 235 miles. (Brightline)

Downtown LA to San Fran in 2 Hours 40 Minutes

The Golden State meanwhile is forging ahead with California High Speed Rail, a plan to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco with 220 mile per hour service by 2029–that measure won $40 billion in funding via a state ballot measure passed in 2008. California could potentially use some help covering costs, which had ballooned to $64 billion by last count. When finished, the high speed line would provide two hour and 40 minute trips from Union Station in Downtown Los Angeles to Downtown San Francisco–faster than flying, which requires transferring to another mode to reach downtown.

California High Speed Rail Map. Click to enlarge. (State of California)

Early-Stage Regional Plans

How many states would be ready to make the leap to fund true high-speed rail service if the federal government provided matching funds? Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia have been exploring a Cascadia high-speed rail corridor connecting each state’s major metropolitan region, and King County Executive Dow Constantine is bullish. Texas has a plan to connect Dallas and Houston. And the Northeast’s already highly successful Acela corridor could use further upgrades to allow greater frequency and improve reliability and speed. And while Florida and California are getting the ball rolling on high speed rail networks with only limited federal support, they could be much more ambitious with greater support and get to later planned phases sooner.

Rail as Economic Engine

Passenger rail and transit investments could be the exclamation mark as some states are wrestled from Republican control. It’s easy to scapegoat transit, and Democrats have often been timid about advocating for big transit investments. Now could be time to seize the transit mantle more fervently as many Americans lament the lack of action on climate change and their own lack of transportation options in their city. Look to Wisconsin for an example of a state where we could turn the tables.

The Sorry Case of Wisconsin

Elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker blocked $810 million in federal investment to upgrade tracks to provide a fast train from Madison to Milwaukee to Chicago. That block-headed, anti-transit move seems especially counterproductive as Wisconsin attempts to woo Foxconn into building a $7 billion plant near Racine without quality transit in the area. Governor Walker’s actions also stalled efforts to speed train service between Minneapolis with Chicago. Perhaps, Wisconsinites are growing tired of their conservative darlings, as even House Speaker Paul Ryan’s prospects of reelection are looking cloudy and Walker’s third term not a lock. What a dramatic way to retake the state, onboard a platform including high-speed rail and more TIGER grants to fund transportation projects like bus rapid transit (BRT) in cities across the country–cities including Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, and Kenosha.

Funding Metropolitan Mass Transit

High-speed passenger rail will be more successful when the destinations have high quality mass transit to help passengers get around once they reach their destination. That’s why the the United States should be expanding the TIGER and New Starts programs–which help light rail and BRT projects get off the ground–rather than cutting them like the last budget did. Cities across the county suddenly got really interested in transit when Amazon announced its HQ2 contest to pick another city for their second headquarters and highlighted transit quality as a criterion. The HQ2 example underscored how corporate preferences have clearly shifted to valuing mass transit–at least in order to attract talented professionals–and it’s a major factor when they pick which metropolitan to move to or leave.

If our government got ambitious for a change, we could also bring back the era of metro expansions. As recently as the 1970’s, the Federal Transit Authority was funding metro systems in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Atlanta. In the 1980’s, that money dried up as the government shifted more focus into pouring more money into never-ending Sisyphean quest to add more freeway miles. If we started investing in metro systems again, there’d be plenty of worthy candidates. Basically every American city needs help in this regard. Even cities with robust transit networks like New York and Washington, D.C. are experiencing the pains of aging and deferred maintenance. Other cities are just woefully behind on the basics.

Dallas’s Dire Need for Quality Transit

Dallas approved a downtown subway and is counting on federal money to keep the project on schedule to open in 2024. To build out Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), the city could use the boost in federal funding to make more urban-focused upgrades happen. Dallas provides an extreme example and warning against just haphazardly throwing down light rails lines in old industrial corridors instead of building to density and adding grade separation. DART has 93 miles of light rail yet manages an anemic 101,300 daily ridership. Seattle, in comparison, gets about 77,000 daily riders on just 22 miles of light rail–Sound Transit expects 600,000 daily ridership after its light rail system is built out to 116 miles. Houston–hardly a transit juggernaut–gets about 66,000 daily riders on its 23 light rail miles.

Dallas rail system is extensive but the bottleneck downtown and avoiding dense areas has limited its usefulness. (DART)

DART’s subway project should address a bottleneck the light system encounters downtown as its four lines converge and share a single pair of surface tracks. Grade separated underground tracks would allow greater frequencies and faster travel times through Downtown Dallas. It’s sad that a metropolitan area of 7.2 million people doesn’t have better transit, which has led to a pathetic transit mode share of 2% for the urbanized metropolitan region and 4% for Dallas proper. Major American cities having such weak transit should concern the federal government and anyone worried about climate change and equitable cities.

Speeding the Transit Transformation of LA

Los Angeles is another big American city known for its lackluster transit, but Los Angeles, like Seattle, passed a massive ballot measure in 2016 to jump start its slow to develop Metro rail network. The $120 billion over 40 years that Los Angeles voters approved could really turn things around and fill out its transit network. Stronger federal support for transit could speed up the pace of Los Angeles rail extensions–late or diminished federal grants are a major concern for this and many transit projects across the country.

The Sepulveda Pass tunnel was a centerpiece of Measure M and includes transit and a tolled highway. (Los Angeles Metro)

Most cities are unlikely to come up with anywhere near as much money as Los Angeles did, which is why the federal government needs to play a role. The incentive of larger federal matching grants could help many regions make the decision to invest big in transit.

Ride the Wave

If returning the federal government’s focus to urban transportation seems far-fetched, remember that Democrats are leading by double digits in generic ballot polls. Even with their structural advantages, their gerrymandering, and their assaults on voter rights, Republicans will have a hard time overcoming their tremendous unpopularity. If Democrats manage to present an even moderately inspiring alternative, Republicans may well lose control of the House of Representatives for the first time since the Tea Party wave in 2010. That inspiring progressive alternative could well be a huge infrastructure plan that would modernize our passenger rail network, upgrade our mass transit, and bring bus rapid transit to many mid-sized cities for the first time. It might sound crazy, but transit could really be a political winner nationally as more Americans are convinced of its connection to job growth and resiliency.

The featured image is courtesy of Amtrak.

High Speed Rail: The Right Kind of Infrastructure Investment

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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>> If returning the federal government’s focus to urban transportation seems far-fetched,

It doesn’t seem far fetched to me at all. It is quite likely that in the next election we will see the pendulum swing back, once again (that is just the period we live in). Then, two years later, it is likely we elect a Democratic President, which means the Democrats would control all three chambers.

What happens then is tough to say, but I think it is reasonable that the Democrats forget about trying to appeal to the moderate middle. From Clinton on, that has been the strategy, and it has had limited success. When you have a charismatic leader (Clinton, Obama) it seems to work fine, but overall, the country has simply slipped to the right. Not in terms of what people want, but who they elect.

Which means the Democrats may be focused on appealing to their base, and building it. The first order of business should be addressing gerrymandering and voter suppression, which has hurt Democratic voters for some time now. After that, focusing on urban issues makes a lot of sense. The more densely populated an area is, the more Democratic it votes. So anything that will help people move to the city means more Democratic voters. You can — with all sincerity — argue that improving the state of our cities is the right thing to do. But if you are a Democrat, it also means that you will win more elections.


>> Dallas provides an extreme example and warning against just haphazardly
throwing down light rails lines in old industrial corridors instead of
building to density and adding grade separation. DART has 93 miles of
light rail yet manages an anemic 101,300 daily ridership.


>> Seattle, in
comparison, gets about 77,000 daily riders on just 22 miles of light

Uh huh, and the numbers jumped considerably after only adding about 3 miles of track, since those three miles were along the most urban section in the state.

–Sound Transit expects 600,000 daily ridership after its light rail
system is built out to 116 miles.

Uh, do you notice the disconnect there? We’ve already established that density and proximity matter, yet somehow, things will be different with us. Our system is way more like DART than it is any successful mass transit system (Boston, D. C., Vancouver, let alone all the big cities).

The ridership numbers are absurd. We are supposed to increase ridership almost eight fold, while increasing mileage sixfold. That alone is suspect, but not that crazy. The problem is that most of the new miles of track won’t be in the urban core. You don’t get a “network effect” with trips from Fife to Angle Lake, or South Everett to Ash Way. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way, and DART (and many, many other similar systems) show that to be true. The only way you can have very high ridership is by addressing the urban core, and providing very fast service within it. Good suburban connections are important as well. But what matters most to a suburban commuter is not that they can get to places like Mountlake Terrace and North Shoreline along the way, but that they can get to places *within the city* once they get into it. In other words, express bus service and infrequent commuter rail is fine — as long as you can get anywhere within the city once you get there. The problem is, we are building a system where you can’t do that. 116 miles of track, and you can’t even get to Belltown or First Hill, let alone the Central Area! Ballard to UW (top five urban destinations by my estimate) are no better than they are today (you take the bus). South Lake Union to Group Health (again, two very urban neighborhoods) are either a four seat ride (bus, train, train, bus) or no better than today. That is nuts. That is DART. That is us.


I have been a supporter of passenger rail transportation since the inception of Amtrak. I could fill a recycling bin with the letters – yes, paper letters – I have written to defend essential passenger rail services from the constant threat of the GOP budgetary ax. Still, my opinions have changed over the past 40+ years as to what constitutes effective use of limited public transportation dollars. Astronomically expensive projects such as the California High Speed Rail plan will never come close to being financially self-sustaining and, most likely, will never even be completed. Meanwhile, basic bus service to much of rural America is disappearing, county road nets are shrinking, and rural bridges deemed unsafe are not replaced.

Amtrak never was designed to be an effective, modern, or profitable system. Its sole purpose was to relive the private rail carriers of their statutory obligations to provide passenger services – often as a direct result of millions of acres of federal land grants to the railroads or federal and state subsidies for their construction. By the late 1960s, the private railroads were losing money, big money on passenger services and begged for a way out. Amtrak was merely supposed to be a bridge to relieve the railroads of their passenger obligations which would then be phased out.

A key piece of evidence it the ownership of tracks. Except for the Northeast Corridor, AMtrak does not own the tracks over which its trains run – the private rail carriers, such as BNSF between Seattle and Portland, continue to maintain ownership and operational control – a control which prioritizes freight over passenger use. Although there were initially clear stipulation in the initial Amtrak legislation that required maintenance of track to passenger train standards and prioritizing Amtrak trains, these have been been increasingly ignored for decades.

So you end up with an Amtrak system with woeful delays that has minimal service to most areas of the country with only a few corridors outside of the Northeast with multiple trains per day. Even the Northeast Corridor compares poorly to real high-speed rail elsewhere. New York to Washington, DC on the Acela covers 240 in just under 3 hours – avg. 80 mph. The Tokyo to Osaka Shinkansen covers 315 miles in 2 1/2 hours – avg 125 mph – the Paris to Marseille TGV covers 470 miles in just over 3 hours – avg. 155 mph. The Amtrak Cascades cover 187 miles in 3 hours, 20 minutes – avg. 58 mph. That hardly qualifies as high speed – and is unlikely to pull many cars off I-5 with a distance of only 160 miles and a travel time at 55 mph of 3 hours.

The only way to get real high-speed rail in the Pacific Northwest is to find some way to have dedicated passenger rail trackage. Onr of the reasons for the ill-fated Point Defiance Bypass was to get passenger trains off the freight-clogged BNSF line. The weaker choice would be to have Amtrak or state ownership of the current mainline between Vancouver and Eugene. But all rail planners agree that shared freight and passenger service on the same line becomes increasingly unworkable and increasingly dangerous as passenger train speeds increase. The more better and more expensive choice would be the construction of separate, dedicated passenger tracks without grade crossings. That is the basic precept of the Interstate System, that is the design of all high-speed systems worldwide.

And yet, the California High Speed Rail plan is certainly NOT the way to go about it. Whether the cost has ballooned to $68 billion or $64 billion is not important – after all, what’s $4 billion? Especially when the real cost of the full system has expanded from $40 billion to $100 billion – with $60 billion an highly optimistic estimate for a scaled-down system. Everything about CHSR is a boondoggle – the routing is politically circuitous adding 100 unnecessary miles which makes 2 hours and 40 minutes physically impossible. The passenger estimates are ludicrous – which makes the cost estimates equally ludicrous. But all of these concerns pale before the central fact that at the current rate that CHSRA is burning through its billions, it will, at best, only get a short, initial segment complete in the Central Valley – from nowhere to nowhere.

And this is why passenger rail fails. It seems that planners either try to sell lumbering trains that squeal along maintenance-deferred tracks as a viable option to highway travel – – or they leap to pie-in-the-sky plans with little chance of completion that only further discredit rail travel in the eyes of the public.

North Carolina’s passenger rail expansion is an exception. First, the state owns the trackage from Raleigh to Charlotte, so the state can call the shots rather than the railroads blackmailing the state for every concession. Second, the North Carolina rail plan has been incremental – both in number of trains per day and in improvements to the corridor that allow for higher speeds. Prior to the implementation of this plan, there had been no passenger service between Raleigh and Greensboro for almost 40 years. Now there are 6 trains per day travelling at 59 mph with 79 mph in the future.

Although I disagree with GOP officials who demand that Amtrak be self-supporting – no passenger system in the world is self-supporting and other transportation modes receive huge subsidies – passenger rail must be more effective in its use of funds. Only then will it be possible to create a viable rail network in the U.S.


I agree with most of what you wrote, but I will say this: At least the California corridor makes sense for high speed rail. Ridership estimates may be high, but they probably aren’t crazy. The distances and the size of the cities means that you have great potential, even if the routing isn’t ideal. As to whether it actually gets built or not, I guess it depends on how much they want to spend. It may be a boondoggle, but this country has had much bigger boondoggles.

The biggest problem with rail in this country is that we try to please everyone. I’m sorry, but passenger service to North Dakota just doesn’t make sense, for the same reason that passenger service to Twisp doesn’t make sense. There aren’t enough people there, and it isn’t along the way. But as long as politicians are only concerned about their own district, or their own state, it will be tough for the country to chip in for the lines that make sense. That means we will be stuck trying to build passenger rail like it makes sense for everyone or no one.


Actually, Amtrak service to North Dakota is one of the more profitable long-distance routes. The Empire Builder – running from Chicago to Seattle/Portland – also was a key link to the Bakken Oil Boom surrounding Williston. Unfortunately, the oil boom produced numerous oil trains which slowed the E.B. schedule.

The Empire Builder does not cover its costs – but the Cascades do not, either. The Empire Builder has a farebox recovery rate of 53% – losing $50 million with ridership of nearly 500,000. Still that a $100 loss per passenger. The Cascades present a conundrum – radically different figures from Amtrak and WSDOT, the latter only including Washington segments. The Amtrak figures show $28.4 million receipts on $68 million expenses for a farebox recovery of only 42% – the WSDOT figures are $29.8 million on $51.3 million for 58% recovery. How the Washington trains can have higher receipts than then entire system is a major act of legerdemain. Comparing Amtrak figures to Amtrak figures – the Cascades lost $40 million on ridership of nearly 800,000. That’s $50 per passenger for much short trips. (Also, the Empire Builder’s numbers were down in 2014 because of the oil boom delays.)

At the very least, the Empire Builder’s numbers are comparable to the Cascades – perhaps a bit better – possibly worse. The reality, however, is that for a national passenger rail system to work it must have national political support. Especially from those 100 senators in the U.S. Senate. Thus, you have to create a blended system where regional short-haul trains are complemented by long-distance trains that serve non-metropolitan states like North Dakota. If intercity long-distance trains are eliminated, the potential for future political support for all train service is substantially diminished.


>> Amtrak service to North Dakota is one of the more profitable long-distance routes.

Sure, which just shows how terrible long-distance routes are. It just doesn’t make sense to run trains for a very long distance. Taking a train from L. A. to New York connects the two biggest cities in the U. S., but it simply takes too long. Even if you invested in high speed rail, it would take too long.

Investing in high speed rail only makes sense if you have both high demand, and the line can actually compete with a plane. Anything involving North Dakota fails on both ends.

In general, there are only a handful of places in the U. S. where high speed rail makes sense. Yet politically, we think it either makes sense everywhere or nowhere. That is the problem, and has been the problem a long time. To be fair, the red parts of the map cited above make a lot of sense. Those are actually the high speed rail parts. But why, then, bother with the grey parts? Why subsidize the trip from Eugene to California, or Minneapolis to Seattle? It will take a very long time for that trip, which means it is both expensive to operate, and very few people will take it. If you are going to subsidize long distance travel, then just pay for buses (a much more economical alternative).


Begging your pardon, but I never suggested high speed rail for North Dakota.

Two points –
1. Politically, federal rail dollars for the Pacific Northwest Corridor will never materialize unless rail service is maintained in North Dakota.
2. The Cascades are as highly-subsidized as is the Empire Builder – so it is a persistent fallacy that North Dakota rail service is more highly subsidized.

The passenger-mile subsidy for a rider in Washington and North Dakota is roughly the same, so – using your logic – why not just use buses for both?

*Granted, the subsidy for the Empire Builder comes entirely from Amtrak while the Cascades subsidies are now covered by Washington and Oregon.