Announcing the latest round of high-speed rail grants last week, Federal Railroad Administration chief Joe Szabo compared the effort to the 1950s push to lace the country with interstate highways.
"In the 20th century, our vision led to the Interstate Highway System," Szabo said. "In the 21st century, our vision will give us a world-class network of high-speed passenger rail corridors."
President Eisenhower is credited with creating the highway system that now stretches nearly 47,000 miles and is the country's largest public works project. Faced with a patchwork system of roads, Eisenhower rallied Congress and state leaders to work together in the "vital interests of every citizen in a safe and adequate highway system."
The same kind of leadership is needed now from President Obama on high-speed rail, advocates of that system say.
"We certainly should look at how [the interstate system] was packaged, promoted and got off the ground from being an idea ... to being this whole big system that refocused the entire nation for 30 years," said Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association. "It became a major, massive construction project nationwide with all the states under construction. That's how we're seeing this rail project roll out, but we're at this early, vulnerable stage."
While Obama has made speeches about high-speed rail and infrastructure, advocates say he must do more. Kunz said the opposition of some Republicans -- including gubernatorial candidates in Florida and California -- shows the issue has not captured public attention.
A major White House campaign could propel high-speed rail from the planning stage to a national network, advocates say. As the Obama administration plans ways to make U.S. transportation less reliant on cars and more environmentally friendly, Kunz said Obama's rhetoric is vital to get the public on board.
Department of Transportation spokeswoman Olivia Alair said the administration is asking Congress for $50 billion for infrastructure ahead of reauthorizing the transportation law in 2011. The infrastructure proposal includes cash for high-speed rail, with an eye toward shifting long-term funding to alternatives to highways. Obama's stated goal is to move the nation away from petroleum use and encourage cleaner forms of transportation.
Such large-scale changes will face resistance from the auto industry and Republicans, who have branded the administration's "livability" initiatives as frivolous. Overcoming those roadblocks requires leadership from the White House, said James Corless, president of the smart-growth advocacy group Transportation for America.
"It's very important that the administration has begun to suggest that they want a bill, and they want a bill with sustainability goals," Corless said. "But there's a need to be inspirational, just like Eisenhower. You have to capture public's imagination."
Eisenhower's interstate highways
Modernizing U.S. highways was a priority for Eisenhower, a five-star general who was Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe in 1944 and 1945 and led the invasion of France and Germany.
In an interview with Hearst Newspapers before his election in 1952, the Republican said, "The obsolescence of the nation's highways presents an appalling problem of waste, danger and death."
"When Eisenhower was in Europe and he was amazed at the Autobahn and other transportation systems and he said we had to do better," said Al Mueller, a professor at the Pennsylvania State University, Mont Alto, and author of a rhetorical history of Eisenhower's work on the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. America's "old roads were devastated badly."
But Eisenhower's push for the highway network took some time.
Faced with the Korean War and an economic recession, Eisenhower's work on highways began modestly with a 1952 authorization fund that lasted through 1954. Eisenhower and his administration began actively pitching the system in 1954 it as a public-safety initiative to reduce highway fatalities.
Speaking to the Governors' Conference, then-Vice President Richard Nixon urged "a grand plan for a properly articulated system that solves the problems of speedy, safe, transcontinental traffic: intercity communication, access highways and farm-to-market movement, metropolitan area congestion, bottlenecks and parking."
Days after Nixon's speech, Eisenhower signed the 1954 Federal-Aid Highway Act, creating the first dedicated funding for building the interstate system, $175 million a year.
"When he first said, we need to update the highways, nobody paid much attention. It's like us responding to the city saying we need to pave streets," Mueller said. "When they came up with this interstate system, things changed. He created it for safety ... but over time it began to take on more of a sense of out-and-out economic interest."
The proposal encountered resistance from Congress and from states that did not want to help pick up the tab. The program also had funding setbacks due to Eisenhower's insistence that the system be budget-neutral.
But Eisenhower continued to hammer away. In a 1955 letter to Congress, he described the "inescapable evidence" for an interstate system that would increase safety, decrease damage to vehicles caused by the poor condition of existing roads, provide safe evacuation routes in a national security event and boost the country's economic growth.
Eisenhower eventually struck a deal with governors to create a national gasoline tax that would fund the highway-building program. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 passed Congress by a bipartisan vote and was signed by the president in a hospital room (he was recovering from surgery) without ceremony.
There is a key similarity between the political climate of the 1950s and today's, Mueller said.
"With the interstate system, we had come out of the Great Depression, but now we were in post-war recession and [Eisenhower] wanted to put people to work," he said. "We've been in this recession for so long ... that I think the economic conditions are right for a massive public works project of this nature to put people to work and to give people decent wages to help spur things."
'Magnitude of the project matters'
Rail advocates are urging Obama to create an "Eisenhower moment," a defining speech or event promoting high-speed rail. But Mueller points out there was no such moment for the highway system.
Eisenhower never stood in front of a construction project about to break ground and delivered a grand speech about the economy, nor did he triumphantly ride on the first paved road.
"A lot of people remember different things, but there's really not a moment," Mueller said. "What he did was embark on the single greatest public works project in this country's history ... responsibly and right."
And while advocates say high-speed rail has the potential to transform the nation, they concede it is far different from the early stages of the interstate system.
"Eisenhower had a grand plan to build and more than double the existing system by introducing a brand new, sweeping system instead of improving an old system of highways one intersection at a time," said Dan McNichol, author of The Roads that Built America. "Obama's talking about building a system piecemeal that doesn't even connect. ... He's going to rebuild our infrastructure, not build it."
But McNichol said it is important for Obama to lay the groundwork, encouraging governors and legislators to back the program like Eisenhower did during his first term. And like Eisenhower, Obama could use a simple message, outlining the benefits to the environment, economy and national security.
"He does need to educate people on those points," McNichol said. "Eisenhower launched the interstate system at the cusp of his first and second terms. His whole second term was around the launch. If Obama's elected to a second term, he could package this, promote it and ride that wave of benefit."
McNichol said people easily bought into "the interstate system" as a brand name because they could see the entire thing on a map, while high-speed rail is currently in the planning stage and scattered throughout the country. The plan could be better marketed with a distinct "look," McNichol said, whether it is the train design or simply a color scheme like the highways' distinct green and white signs.
"Look at the man on the moon," McNichol said. "The magnitude of the project matters. Making it look piecemeal and abstract doesn't move it along."
Others are looking for Vice President Joe Biden to be the spokesman for rail, given his many years of commuting daily on Amtrak between Senate office and his home in Delaware. Biden joined Obama for his announcement of rail grants, boasting about his 7,900 or so round trips on Amtrak.
Praise for Obama's early efforts
Obama has been bullish on rail, mentioning it in his 2010 State of the Union speech and following up the next day with an announcement in Tampa of $8 billion in stimulus grants for train service.
"Imagine whisking though towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation and ending up just blocks from your destination," Obama said. "It is happening right now; it's been happening for decades. The problem is, it's been happening elsewhere, not here."
Florida is expected to have the nation's first high-speed rail line, a leg between Tampa and Orlando that will eventually be part of a multi-city network that includes Miami. California is also working on a San Francisco-Los Angeles line, and a Midwest network is in the planning stages.
Besides the $8 billion from the stimulus for those projects, Obama has pledged $1 billion a year over the next five years for rail development. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a longtime rail advocate, has also been lobbying hard for the system.
Kunz of the High Speed Rail Association said that while he would like to see more action and funding from the White House, his group is content with the progress on rail that Obama has spurred.
"He's done more than any president's done in 100 years," Kunz said. "Just getting it off the ground in this economic situation is pretty ballsy. Now it's gaining momentum."