Obama’s vision for a transportation makeover struggling to leave the station

The Takeaway

This time last year, President Barack Obama laid out his plan for an improved transportation infrastructure in America.

He focused on high speed rail and providing federal funding to help develop new corridors for high speed rail transportation. But after many defeats in Congress, including de-funding of high-speed rail, the transportation initiative suddenly seems less futuristic and more focused on rebuilding the old highways of the past.

Alex Goldmark, a reporter for WNYC’s Transportation Nation, said while Obama’s vision started with lofty goals of rail and new systems to reduce foreign energy dependence, by the end of the year he’d recalibrated his desires to be about rebuilding deteriorating roads and bridges.

“If you look at how his speeches change over time…it shows that he got so battered from the political fight. He stuck his neck out on high-speed rail, which became a political football after governors in Florida and Wisconsin canceled their plans,” Goldmark said. “He lost the funding fight in Congress and had to scale back what he was asking for.”

And even where projects are still going forward, like in California, prices keep going up for the work that is being done.

“The immediate reaction to his high-speed rail plan was that he was going to raid the highway trust fund,” Goldmark said. “That he was going to take money out of cars and roads and he was going to put it in this highfalutin tree-hugger thing of rails.”

That’s been the fault line for the Obama administration, Goldmark said. On the other hand, though, it’s likely not a zero-sum game. America will need to develop a multimodal transportation infrastructure to move forward, but including roads and planes as well as rails.

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