Barack Obama had good reason to make campaign promises about fixing the nation's transportation system.
Before he took office, one federal commission said the U.S. was only spending 40 percent of the $225 billion per year -- for the next 50 years -- needed to repair and modernize the country's railways, roads, bridges and city transit lines.
The American Society of Civil Engineers, a trade and advocacy organization, said a third of all American roads were in poor or mediocre condition and more than a quarter of the nation's bridges were "structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.”
As a candidate, Obama said he would work with states and local governments to upgrade the nation's transportation infrastructure. By the time he took office, his transportation infrastructure proposal became part of the solution for another problem: the deepening economic recession.
The idea of spending billions on transportation projects to put Americans back to work became part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the economic stimulus. And it came up again in his proposals for high-speed rail and a national infrastructure bank, both topics in his State of the Union speeches.
"You'd have to go back to President Reagan in 1982 to find a president who talked as much about transportation infrastructure,” said Deron Lovaas, transportation policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. At that time, Reagan fought to raise the gas tax by five cents per gallon, reserving 20 percent of that new revenue for mass transit.
But did the proposals and rhetoric translate into the broad change Obama promised?
Tigers and maps, but no new national infrastructure policy
Although bridge repair and building rail lines were some of the most visual examples of spending in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, transportation was a relatively small part of the stimulus package. The administration spent about $48.1 billion on transportation funding, roughly 6 percent of the total $787 billion in stimulus.
Obama's signature transportation initiative was the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, program. Even though it started as part of the stimulus package, the Transportation Department awarded three more rounds of TIGER grants, providing a total of $3.1 billion to state and local governments for 218 transportation projects.
The awards process was competitive, available to any kind of transportation need and gave weight to projects that were large-scale, involved more than one kind of transportation, and promoted energy conservation and environmental sensitivity. It's worth noting, however, that the TIGER program is not scheduled to receive additional funding next year.
In July, Obama also signed a bipartisan transportation bill called the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, or MAP-21 for short. It spends $118 billion over 27 month on highways and transit, but it's mostly an extension of current programs. One major change: new money for a subsidized transportation loan program that allows the federal government to leverage its dollars for other public and private investment. For 2012 the program received $150 million, but in the next two years, it will get $1.7 billion.
Also, in place of the TIGER grants program, MAP-21 adds $500 million next year for "projects of national and regional significance,” though it is a smaller pot of money, unavailable to local governments and limited to large-scale transportation projects.
Given the typical partisan gridlock in Congress, signing MAP-21 was a victory for the Obama administration, Lovaas said. The White House voiced support for MAP-21 and opposed an alternative proposal from the House with a veto threat.
But to the extent that MAP-21 meets Obama's campaign vows on transportation, it's Congress that deserves credit, not the president, said Joshua Shank, president of the centrist Eno Center for Transportation. Obama also broke from presidential tradition by not proposing a comprehensive surface transportation plan, Shank said.
Obama did request money -- ranging from $4 billion to $10 billion -- to start a national infrastructure bank, which would have financed transportation projects with national significance. But he idea never became popular in Congress. He also proposed $50 billion for infrastructure spending as part of his American Jobs Act of 2011 -- again stalled in Congress.
Obama's best chance to pass a major transportation bill might have been during his first two years, when he had Democrat majorities in the House and Senate. But other priorities such as the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus took precedence, said David Goldberg, a spokesman for the liberal research and advocacy group Transportation for America.
To his credit, Obama spoke early and often about upgrading the nation's transportation infrastructure, and even realized his vision in some limited ways. But Congress resisted his attempts at broader reform, and he may have spent valuable political capital on other priorities at the expense of a national transportation agenda. We rate this a Compromise.