No matter the amount, any money toward mass transit is undeniably a smart, forward-looking plan. It may be years until alternative-energy cars are widely available, and increasing mass transit is a tried and true way to increase fuel efficiency. Furthermore, this summer, in the midst of record-high gas prices, Americans showed that they are willing to use alternative forms of transportation. In June, The New York Times reported that Amtrak was transporting record numbers of passengers (indeed, it could not keep up with demand) around the nation.

The Washington Post reported in August that D.C.’s Metro ridership during the 2007-2008 fiscal year reached 215.3 million trips, up 7.4 million from the year before. The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority announced that, in August, drivers took a million fewer trips on state highways compared to the same month in 2007, a decline of 6.75 percent, and that that the number of bus, subway, and train passengers showed a concomitant increase of 6.9 percent.

Given the demonstrated efficiency of mass transit systems, Obama deserves credit for at least getting the $8 billion earmarked for high-speed rail projects into the stimulus package. It was a last-minute addition. “I put it in there for the president,” chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told Politico. “The president wanted to have a signature issue in the bill, his commitment for the future.”

Yet that $8 billion is a good example of the anxious quarreling that will continue to make this a challenging story for reporters. While the stimulus bill was still being debated in mid-February, The Washington Post many news outlets derided the $8 billion for high speed rail as “pork,” based on fears that a large portion of it would go to “a controversial proposal for a magnetic-levitation rail line between Disneyland, in California, and Las Vegas, a project favored by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid.” Those fears were premature. Reid does indeed support the Anaheim-Las Vegas line, but Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is responsible for doling out the high-speed rail money, and nothing has been allotted yet.

Indeed, only time will tell what the federal, state, and municipal recipients of stimulus money will be able to accomplish, and keeping track of the money will be utterly important. Along that line, Michael Cooper’s article in The New York Times on February 14 bears mentioning. As stimulus dollars get “sprinkled through the 50 states…” he wrote, “The money will be welcome, but hardly enough to transform transportation.”

Of course, it is entirely possible that fixing “small needs,” such as repairing roads, bridges, and tracks, will have transformative consequences to the people who rely upon them for transit. Indeed, during the political wrangling over the stimulus package, Obama’s most significant transportation-related public appearance was with Virginia Governor Tim Kaine. The location was an incomplete, 1.9-mile stretch of the Fairfax County Parkway. Both men said that finishing the project with stimulus funds would create jobs and bolster the economy by connecting residential areas to major business parks. “But so would many other highway projects,” the article noted. And so would many other mass transit projects.

Come what may, local and regional reporters especially will have excellent opportunities to analyze the merits of transportation projects as stimulus spending is “sprinkled throughout the 50 states.” First and foremost, those journalists must see if the projects actually do get underway, and if they do spur the economy and create jobs in their areas. But they must also ask if they serve the national interest as well, by advancing the kind of infrastructural transformation Obama has promised—one that is so badly needed.

Ends today: If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of
10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

Katherine Bagley is a science, environment and health journalist based in New York City. She is currently working as a reporter for Audubon Magazine.