As journalists and members of Congress continued to sift through the nearly 1000-page stimulus package last Tuesday night, President Obama addressed the nation on the topics of employment, credit, housing, and energy. He promised that his recovery plan would save or create 3.5 million jobs, many of them in green-collar industries.
“More than 90 percent of these jobs will be in the private sector,” he said. “Jobs rebuilding our roads and bridges, constructing wind turbines and solar panels, laying broadband and expanding mass transit.”
Approximately five percent, or $46.1 billion, of the total stimulus funding is being allocated over the next decade to transportation. Breakdowns of the package are still in the preliminary stages, but Transportation for America—a diverse coalition of elected officials, transportation, and development groups—estimates $27.5 billion is allocated for the Surface Transportation Program, which includes constructing and maintaining highways and roads. Approximately $8.4 billion is designated for public transportation, and $9.3 billion for intercity and high-speed passenger rail. An additional $825 million is going toward projects that will make roads safer for walking and biking.
Clearly, the stimulus is a big boost for rail and mass transit, which have been woefully underfunded for years. But is it enough money to build the kind of transportation infrastructure that would protect Americans from another spike in oil prices?
Various projects are vying for a slice of the stimulus money, from the construction of a high-speed California rail line connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles, costing $45 billion (obviously, the stimulus won’t cover it all), to the improvement to Chicago’s congested freight rail network, costing $2.5 billion. The upshot is that local and regional reporters will bear the responsibility for monitoring how and where the money is spent. Up to now, and with nothing to go on but the budget itself, national news reporters have been torn between optimism and pessimism about how much can be accomplished.
Some are comparing the $46.1 billion stimulus transportation budget to Obama’s campaign transportation plan, which included plans for a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank that would, among other things, spend $60 billion over ten years to overhaul the country’s infrastructure. As early as last May, Obama pledged to make rail a major part of his presidential agenda. At a campaign stop in Indiana, he told an Amtrak employee, “The irony is with the gas prices what they are, we should be expanding rail service.”
Some reporters covering energy and transportation think the stimulus is a large stride toward achieving those early promises. Headlines like “Obama plots huge railroad expansion” in Politico on February 17, “Stimulus gives life to speedy rail plans” in the Florida Times Union on February 27, and “Stimulus puts high-speed rail on the fast track,” on National Public Radio on February 24 represent just a few of the more sanguine articles to appear after Obama signed the stimulus bill.
Other reporters, taking a less optimistic angle, compared the $46.1 billion to the Department of Transportation’s 2009 fiscal year budget request of $68 billion, arguing that the numbers do not seem to stack up in mass transit’s favor.
The Boston Globe’s Michael Kranish was one of the first to cast a skeptical eye on the stimulus, publishing an article on January 29 about mass transit supporters’ frustration with the transportation budget. Paraphrasing policy analysts, Kranish wrote, “Obama initially left the impression that it would have such a massive component of urban transit and high-speed rail that it would lead to a ‘generational change’ in transportation comparable to that of the interstate system of the 1950s.”
“It may be the longest train delay in history,” wrote Michael Cooper for The New York Times on February 19. “[$8 billion] will not be enough to pay for a single bullet train, transportation experts say. And by the time [it] gets divided among the 11 regions across the country that the government has designated as high-speed rail corridors… it is unlikely to do much beyond paying for long-delayed improvements to passenger lines.”
In the article, Cooper compared the United States’s rail system to those in Europe and Asia: “To some longtime proponents of high-speed rail who have watched with envy as other countries built ever-faster trains, failing to build a world-class high-speed train now would represent a tremendous missed opportunity to lure drivers off choked roads and fliers away from long delays at airports.”