President Obama made his long-awaited infrastructure push during his State of the Union address – with more information included in an accompanying memo released today (see below). This is what he told Congress:
The third step in winning the future is rebuilding America. To attract new businesses to our shores, we need the fastest, most reliable ways to move people, goods, and information – from high-speed rail to high-speed internet. [Applause]
Our infrastructure used to be the best – but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation’s infrastructure, they gave us a “D.”
We have to do better. America is the nation that built the transcontinental railroad, brought electricity to rural communities, and constructed the interstate highway system. The jobs created by these projects didn’t just come from laying down tracks or pavement. They came from businesses that opened near a town’s new train station or the new off-ramp.
Over the last two years, we have begun rebuilding for the 21st century, a project that has meant thousands of good jobs for the hard-hit construction industry. Tonight, I’m proposing that we redouble these efforts. [Applause]
We will put more Americans to work repairing crumbling roads and bridges. 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.
Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail. [Applause] This could allow you go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying – without the pat-down. [Laughter, applause]. As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway.
Within the next five years, we will make it possible for business to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans. This isn’t just about a faster internet and fewer dropped calls. It’s about connecting every part of America to the digital age. It’s about a rural community in Iowa or Alabama where farmers and small business owners will be able to sell their products all over the world. It’s about a firefighter who can download the design of a burning building onto a handheld device; a student who can take classes with a digital textbook; or a patient who can have face-to-face video chats with her doctor.
All these investments – in innovation, education, and infrastructure – will make America a better place to do business and create jobs.
High speed rail proponents will cheer his support for their cause, which has been teetering in the face of serious opposition. But overall, Obama shied away from specifics on infrastructure. He didn’t return to his Labor Day push for a $50 billion “down payment” for infrastructure. He didn’t get behind a six-year reauthorization, though the administration did release a companion to the address, saying that a six-year transportation reauthorization would be rolled into the White House budget proposal. The memo also envisions “transformational investments such as an infrastructure bank.”
In his speech, Obama certainly didn’t advocate for a reform-minded transportation agenda that gets beyond the single-occupancy vehicle. And he didn’t address the people whose letters we featured earlier today, who find their mobility curtailed because of inadequate public transportation.
But were we expecting all that? This is kind of what we were expecting. It’s notable that Obama listed infrastructure third in a series with economic innovation and education, listing the strategies the country needs to use to return to its position as a global superpower. It’ll be up to advocates and supporters of sustainable, efficient transportation to keep pushing the administration – and, more importantly, Congress – for the kind of infrastructure investment and innovative reform the country needs.