Seeking Collaboration in High Speed Rail: Lessons from Interstate Highways

After posting last blog, I chose the currently controversial high-speed rail program as one case by reading the ‘Regional Planning in America’ recommended by my mentor. Then to achieve comparative study, I once thought about comparison between different regions or different countries, but during the peer discussions in last conference, I finally focused on a historical counterpart: the popular story of building the interstates.

At first, I found people love to talk about the legendary building course of interstate highways, but when hearing about the high-speed rail, most people think it hopeless and are bored to talk about it. This is not only the situation that I noticed in DC, but also true when I came back to China and discussed them with other American friends. Thus I wondered what makes people feel so different on the policymaking processes of two similar massive surface transport programs. And are there any similarities overlooked by most people in our time? So I brought myself into reviewing the planning and policymaking of both of them. Thanks to the popularity of highway history, the Federal Highway Administration (of DOT) published elaborate records of interstates, from words on congressional meetings and associational conferences to in-depth interviews of policymakers at that time, from 1891 when the first state-aid road bill was passed in New Jersey, to the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 which finally gave birth to the Eisenhower Interstate Highways. Meanwhile, a noticeable fact of high-speed rail planning is also its previous efforts dating back to the High-Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965. Then it becomes clear that policymaking processes of both highways and high-speed rail are time-consuming, and both suffered at the beginning. What we now observed as a relatively fluent planning of the Eisenhower Interstates is actually the ending stage of the whole network; and the debates of high-speed rail that bore people in these years, are actually very much similar to the struggles of building the interstates in its earlier time.

Of course, however, there are dramatic differences between various initiates of the two processes. Through analyzing them, I concluded that changing policies on mass surface transportation requires both deliberate visions as well as decisive plans, and will inevitably trigger conflicts among stakeholders and doubts among public sensation. Previous successful experience of interstate highway and several passenger rail projects have provided the effective paradigm of collaborative policy-making, which requires to identify 1) the challenging nature of mass surface transportation; 2) core missions to meet challenges; 3) key roles involved in accomplishing these missions; 4) the collaborative policy-making framework constituted by these roles. So far I have targeted the key roles to federal government, state governments, advocacy groups, research institutions, private sectors, and the public. When public demands impel states to develop new projects and a federal-level vision follows promptly, the chance of successfully delivering a national transport plan or act will be significantly increased. But when there are lack of public interests and absence of pioneering states, over-speeded planning and legislation at federal level are likely to put the project into stalemate. I am still forming a more comprehensive framework of their works in this process, and I hope to improve it in the Spring Conference.

Coincidentally, several days ago China’s central government finally announced the reform of the Ministry of Railways. The principals of this reform, including separating government functions from enterprise management and separating management of freight services from passenger services, reflect the reform effort of the U.S. railways from the Congress. Since the different governmental structures make it hard to compare policymaking frameworks in the two countries, I plan to look into this issue in a quantitative way, such as assessing how public demand and budget at federal/central level influence the effect of massive transport projects.

Looking forward to seeing everyone soon!


Meicheng (Nanjing University)

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