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

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.