President Obama reaffirmed his administration's "investment" approach to infrastructure in last night's address, signaling that the White House may see room for compromise with Republicans on transportation spending.
Throughout the speech, Obama balanced his calls for strategic spending to "win the future" with tax cuts and slimming down bureaucracy.
Transportation infrastructure fell in the first category, as the president said he wants 80 percent of Americans to have high-speed rail access, and that he'll soon release a six-year plan to fix roads, bridges and transit and establish a National Infrastructure Bank.
"We will make sure this is fully paid for, attract private investment, and pick projects based on what's best for the economy, not politicians," Obama said of the six-year plan.
Substantively, Obama's proposals resemble his initiatives under the last Congress, led by Democrats. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has stated the 80 percent goal before.
And last September, Obama announced a six-year plan for roads, railways and runways that stated no total price tag, but front-loaded $50 billion in spending to jolt the economy in the near term. This plan also recommended the National Infrastructure Bank.
The speech bred hope for some transportation advocates, who watched a Democratic Congress kick the can down the road through Republican pickups in November.
Republican response focused on cost
Dan Smith, a transportation associate with U.S. PIRG, said the president showed a willingness to make big compromises in the lame-duck session, and that could be a model for transportation policy.
"I think infrastructure could come in, in the form of a compromise where members of Congress from both parties see that it's in their interest" and will help the people in their districts, he said. "There's no such thing as a Democrat or Republican road project or rail project."
In the Republican response to Obama, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said all the president's initiatives, including the stimulus bill, have brought the nation to the brink of fiscal breakdown. Ryan said Obama has increased spending on domestic government agencies by 84 percent, including the "failed stimulus" that included spending on rail, highways and transit.
"All of this new government spending was sold as 'investment,'" Ryan said. "Yet after two years, the unemployment rate remains above 9 percent and government has added over $3 trillion to our debt."
Nonetheless, David Goldberg, communications director for smart-growth group Transportation for America, said fissures will eventually form between Republicans.
"Frankly, there are a lot of Republicans that represent unions and districts that really want that congestion relief from a new rail line," he said. "I'm just saying that they're out there."
Click here to watch E&ETV's post-speech coverage.