SOTU: Is Obama Retreating on Infrastructure?

Being an election year, last night’s State of the Union Address carried an extra bit of gravity, at least according to the favored media storyline.

Obama was largely silent on the topic on infrastructure in last night's speech, indicating a possible change of course in the upcoming election year. Photo: Visa2Tour

Transportation observers watched this speech with interest, because in past years Obama has made infrastructure spending a centerpiece. This year however, those straining their ears for word of some dynamic new program or spending package were disappointed.

And Obama’s relative silence on the subject of infrastructure says a lot about what we can expect from him over the coming year, says Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic:

The contributions of the Obama Administration to the investment in improved transportation alternatives have been significant, but it was clear from the President’s State of the Union address last night that 2012 will be a year of diminished expectations in the face of a general election and a tough Congressional opposition.

Mr. Obama’s address, whatever its merits from a populist perspective, nonetheless failed to propose dramatic reforms to encourage new spending on transportation projects, in contrast to previous years. While the Administration has in some ways radically reformed the way Washington goes about selecting capital improvements, bringing a new emphasis on livability and underdeveloped modes like high-speed rail, there was little indication in the speech of an effort to expand such policy choices. All that we heard was a rather meek suggestion to transform a part of the money made available from the pullout from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts — a sort of war dividend whose size is undefined — to “do some nation-building right here at home.”

If these suggestions fell flat for the pro-investment audience, they were reflective of the reality of working in the context of a deeply divided political system in which such once-universally supported policies as increased roads funding have become practically impossible to pursue. Mr. Obama pushed hard, we shouldn’t forget, for a huge, transformational transportation bill in early 2011, only to be rebuffed by intransigence in the GOP-led House of Representatives and only wavering support in the Democratic Senate. For the first term at least, the Administration’s transportation initiatives appear to have been pushed aside.

For a glimpse at what a cyclist’s fantasy SOTU would have sounded like, check out this post from Bike Portland.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Transportation for America reports that the House of Representatives in on the verge of putting forward a transportation bill funded by (ugh) increased oil drilling. How We Drive comments on the transit vision offered by fellow Network blogger Jarrett Walker in his new book, “Human Transit.” And The City Fix outlines what national experts recommend for reducing air pollution caused by transportation.