Transportation Policy: An Examination of High-Speed Rail



Grade Level & Subject: Grades 10-12: Social Studies, Civics

Length: 2-3 class periods


After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Consider how transportation has both improved lives and also created additional problems related to political, economic, social and environmental factors.
  • Better understand the complex role of interrelated political factors that can influence the legislative process.
  • Build categorization skills essential to quality essay writing.
  • Analyze the importance of landmark legislation, such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and its continued significance.

National Standards Addressed:[1]

This lesson addresses the following National Standards for History presented by The National Center for History in the Schools:

This lesson addresses the following Standards & Position Statement from the National Council for the Social Studies:

  • What is civic life? What is politics? What is government? Why are government and politics necessary? What purposes should government serve?
  • Content Standard: NSS-C.9-12.3 PRINCIPLES OF DEMOCRACY
  • How are power and responsibility distributed, shared, and limited in the government established by the United States Constitution?
  • How is the national government organized and what does it do?
  • What is the place of law in the American constitutional system?
  • How does the American political system provide for choice and opportunities for participation?
  • Content Standard: NSS-C.9-12.5 ROLES OF THE CITIZEN
  • What are the rights of citizens?
  • What are the responsibilities of citizens?
  • What civic dispositions or traits of private and public character are important to the preservation and improvement of American constitutional democracy?
  • How can citizen take part in civic life?

Materials Needed:

  •  Access to internet

Students will be assessed through the following activities:

  • Class participation
  • Performance during debate
  • Post-debate letter to Congressperson
  • Take-home essay



Relevant Vocabulary:

  • Law:A binding custom or practice of a community; a rule of conduct or action prescribed or formally recognized as binding or enforced by a controlling authority.[2]
  • Legislation: The exercise of the power and function of making rules (as laws) that have the force of authority by virtue of their promulgation by an official organ of a state or other organization.[3]

Background Information:

Created in 1966 by an act of Congress, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) oversees the multifarious transportation sector in the U.S. Its mission is to “ensur[e] a fast, safe, efficient, accessible and convenient transportation system that meets our vital national interests and enhances the quality of life of the American people, today and into the future.”[4] The Department oversees such programs and agencies as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the National Highway Administration (NHA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), among others. While the U.S. has a long history of significant investments in its transportation system – going as far back as the Cumberland Road (National Road) of 1806 – there has been an increased focus on the role of transportation in America in recent years. Specifically, decades of investment have created an infrastructure that is beginning to age considerably, yet 21st century technologies like high-speed rail are debated for potential implementation across the country. For example, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) provided billions of potential loans and grants for further investment in the broader local, state and national transportation sectors. States were able to apply for these funds to either start or help complete existing projects. Yet, many have raised the question of whether this is a good investment of taxpayer dollars. Some states have even rejected and subsequently returned their recently awarded ARRA funds back to DOT. All of this adds up to a debate on the role of transportation in America’s 21st century society. Is transportation something that we just take for granted? Does it need a national overhaul akin to the Eisenhower Era’s creation of the National Interstate System? Should the industry become even more privatized, including DOT? These questions and others continue to resonate in local, state and national level debates and are unlikely to be resolved anytime in the near future.


  • U.S. Department of Transportation United States government

Further information about the DOT’s work and services.

  • American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009

The New York Times



Warm-up: Introduction to the High-Speed Rail Debate

  1. Present students with the following quote:

“[The] archeologists of some future age will study [the freeway] . . . to understand who we were.”  

– David Brodsly, L. A. Freeway:  An Appreciative Essay, 1981

  1. Ask students what exactly this quote may refer to. What does it say about America and its national character? Does the quote still resonate today? Why or why not? Answers will vary.

Activity One: Research, Roles and Debate

  1. Ask students to imagine the following hypothetical: State government officials need to make a decision about whether they should proceed with a federally sponsored high-speed rail project in the near future. There are conveniences and consequences when it comes to transportation funding and usage, and this activity seeks to explore this interplay.
  2. Have students explore the Resources section and specifically read the designated news articles related to high-speed rail. Tell the class that these articles and documents frame the hypothetical example, since several states have been grappling in recent months whether to rescind the federal government’s offer of funds related to high-speed rail development.
  3. Assign an equal number of students to each of the following roles: U.S. DOT federal government representative, national environmentalist, local environmentalist, state government representative, state-wide business owner, local business owner, state-level transportation advocate, tourism industry worker, a local farmer (landowner), and a daily commuter.  
  4. Tell the students that they will be involved in a debate where they will assume the perspective of the person they were assigned and will argue the pros and cons of the high-speed rail project in the hypothetical example. Students should reflect upon the same issues encompassed in the debate over whether or not to implement the project in the hypothetical state. If the role they play is under the opinion that no project should take place, they should be prepared with alternative methods for maintaining a system that has growing usage coupled with an aging infrastructure. Other students should be prepared to defend the project as long as it is undertaken as cheaply and efficiently as possible. The final claim that some students will defend is that the project should take place, but with certain precautions or limitations in place.
  5. Remind the students that they will have to provide complete and reasonable arguments for their positions. For example, if students are assigned the role of environmentalist, they should not simply say there should a high-speed rail project, since such projects cost significant sums of money and do not materialize out of thin air. In this case, factors such as reliance on oil, the impact on the job industry and long-term revenue sources should be addressed. Students must convince the public of their positions and why others would benefit as well.
  6. Allow students assigned to the same position time to briefly meet to promote collaboration and discuss various arguments. Make it clear that it is possible for members of the same group to have different perspectives on the situation; each student will have to support his or her own ideas in the end.
  7. Allow students extra time for research either at home as homework or additional time in the classroom, if needed.
  8. With the teacher as a moderator, stage a classroom debate in which every student must participate. This is not a two sided debate; the desks should be arranged in a circle to facilitate communication among the group.
  9. During the debate, allow each person to present his or her role and approach to the issue. Foster a group discussion in terms of the debate. As a deliverable for the assignment, tell the students that they must develop and provide a collective compromise to the Governor of the state. Assign one person to write the multiple ideas and opinions generated on the board. Acknowledge that it may not be possible for students to establish a collective agreement. In this case, explore various compromises and/or prepare two messages to deliver to the Governor with varying opinions.

Wrap Up: Synthesis of Opinion(s)  

  1. Ask students to share their personal reflections and opinions about the hypothetical high-speed rail example. Compare and contrast the findings.
  2. As an additional activity, have each student compose a letter to his or her Congressperson detailing the approach he or she thinks should be taken towards high speed rail. Follow this link to find the members of Congress from your area.[5]
  3. Collect the letters and grade them based on each student’s ability to synthesize a coherent, comprehensive argument.
  4. During the 2011 State of the Union speech, President Obama stated the following: “Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail, which could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car,” the President said. “For some trips, it will be faster than flying…” stated President Obama. Ask the students to write a brief, take-home essay response for homework on whether or not they agree with this statement. Use information obtained from the debate to inform one’s argument.


  1. Students Write a Law: Have students write their own legislation, amendment, or piece of legislation related to the broader topic of transportation. They can choose one of the issues mentioned in this lesson (high-speed trains, road construction and repair, light-rail projects, etc.) and rewrite or amend an existing piece of legislation. Or, they may choose another issue they feel strongly about, and write draft language for a new law. It can be a larger issue, or something affecting them or their school. Students could take this activity further by contacting the appropriate representative (Principal, District Officials, Mayor, Senator, etc.) and share their ideas via a phone call, letter or meeting.
  2. Digging into the Legislation:Have students select one of the pieces of federal transportation legislation and read the actual text of the bill using the U.S. Library of Congress’ Online Database, THOMAS: Students should then review, at least in a summary fashion, the text of the bill as a homework assignment. Next, have students select a portion of the bill, such as an amendment, to analyze in further detail. Specifically, students should either write a report or create a visual representation on their interpretation of the selected piece of legislation. Students should answer the following questions from their examination: What does the selected text actually state?  Who enforces this provision and how? Is it funded?  If so, by what agency or branch of government? Over time, have there been different interpretations of the selected language?  If so, by whom?  Have there ever been any court cases surrounding the selected text?  If so, what did they involve? Do you believe the selected piece of legislation has been successful?  Why or why not?  If not, what would you recommend in its place? 



Students demonstrated informed perspectives on the details of developing transportation projects across the country with a focus on high-speed rail. Moreover, they comprehended the various economic, political and environmental viewpoints present in the current debate on high-speed rail implementation. Lastly, students understood the multifarious nature of our society’s dependence on various means of transport and its relation to the federal legislation process in 21st century America.



Sean S. Miller – Author

Education Director, Earth Day Network

Maggie Ollove – Editor

            Education Associate, Earth Day Network


[2]“Law Entry.” Merriam- Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved 22 January 2010 from

[3]“Legislation Entry.” Merriam- Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved 22 January 2010 from

[4]U.S. Department of Transportation.

[5]U.S. House of Representatives,