Obama Joins Mad Men, Pushes High-Speed Rail In Transportation Bill

May 4, 2011
Barack Obama in Detroit

Barack Obama in Detroit

More passenger trains and bike paths? If President Obama could get his way, it appears that we'd be putting aside some highway funds and spending more to set up high-speed ground transit, as well as making it easier to bike to work.

Early drafts of the President's Transportation bill have emerged, supplied by Transportation Weekly, and in the draft bill—which seems to make little consideration to what Congress might approve, Capitol Hill observers note—high-speed rail is back as a priority, with $53 billion of funding over six years, $37.6 billion of that for development of new lines. What's more, the Highway Trust Fund would be completely replaced by a new Transportation Trust Fund.

Pressure to cut reliance on gas tax

Currently, the Highway Trust Fund depends on revenue from the federal 18.4-cent-per-gallon gas tax; it's channeled mainly to road construction projects and was bailed out in 2008 when it nearly ran out of money.

New this year is a Livability Program, which allocates more than $23 billion to bicycle and pedestrian walkway projects, safe school routes, congestion mitigation, and even a $200 million building livability program. The goal, which is admirable, appears to be encouraging Americans to cut their commute distances down, live in more sustainable patterns, and have healthier lifestyles.

While the President's bill isn't what will become law, it's a starting point for Congress—which will no doubt change its spending based on consumer worries over the economy and gas prices. The House of Representatives has already started writing its transportation reauthorization bill, but it's anticipated that this any new transportation bill that emerges from Capitol Hill will involve an excruciatingly long, drawn-out brawl fought between the House and Senate.

The right balance for rising gas prices?

Earlier this year, fictional Mad Men ad men Pete Campbell and Harry Crane, played by Vincent Kartheiser and Rich Sommer, were featured in a popular viral video from U.S. PIRG, an advocacy group, debating the virtues of driving, flying, or taking a high-speed train. Even then, in fictional 1965 terms, they're mentioning the potential pressure of gas prices.

Are we, as Pete Campbell says (or Obama might think, based on what we see here) "betting on the wrong horse?" In general terms, what's the ideal mix of spending on highways, versus high-speed rail, and what about spending on airports? We'd appreciate hearing your take.

[Streetsblog Capitol Hill

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