Even with less travel during the pandemic, New Yorkers still spent an average of 100 hours stuck in traffic last year, according to the Global Traffic Scorecard compiled by traffic-analytics company Inrix in December. Runways are often as overloaded in major cities, causing delays that ripple through domestic air travel.
At stake is nothing short of global competitiveness, as congestion causes shipping delays and diminishes productivity. The White House's synopsis of the infrastructure legislation noted that China has constructed 22,000 miles of high-speed rail with plans to double that by 2035.
Rather than building more highways, which often merely induces more traffic, Kunz says reliable intercity rail could provide the relief needed to retain America's economic competitiveness.
"Cars are overloaded and aviation is overburdened," he said. "Both of them are failing, and it makes it horrible for everybody because we're missing that other option."
Since the advent of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s, federal spending has historically favored roads, and passengers have followed. Even the $66 billion marked for rail in the legislation enacted is dwarfed by the $110 billion reserved for roads and bridges.
Over seven decades, similar funding disparities between the modes has left America — no surprise — with a transportation system underpinned by roads and driving.
"Here we are, 50 years later, and we're still throwing nickels at rail and trillions on highways," Kunz said. "It really gets to the point where we have to pull back and look logically as a nation at how much we're investing in our future, and how much mobility we're getting for every dollar we're spending. Right now, it's diminishing returns."
Harnish takes perhaps a more nuanced view on the longtime funding disparities. Funding is one aspect. Consistency in funding is another that has borne more reliable and predictable results.
"On the highway side, we have longstanding formulas that assume driving will increase and the planning process always assumes there will be money," he said.
Passenger rail has never had such a foundation.
Not every rail advocate sees the interstates as competition or an opportunity lost. In Las Vegas and Southern California, Brightline intends to build some of its route smack dab down the middle of Interstate 15. Final permitting is expected this year.
In that sense, the interstates are neither a finished product nor competitor, but perhaps a precursor.
"Roads and highways should become the architectural renderings of how we connect these cities, and we ought to look at laying track in the middle or alongside them," Porritt said. "It would take cars off the road. In a lot of cases, the right-of-way issues are solved. Highways of today represent an opportunity to put tracks down."