Obama SOTU(s): We Need a New Transportation Megaproject to Undo the Last Megaproject


One of the most jarring inconsistencies in Obama's speeches about how America needs to go on a greening spree is his constant invocation of the interstate highway system, perhaps the most environmentally destructive government project in American history. Our formidable network of highways made an appearance in Obama's first two State of the Union addresses, and sure enough, he worked it into last night's speech too, followed by a shout out to high-speed rail projects in California and the Midwest:

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. […]

Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail, which 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. As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway.

Like most Americans who have only known an auto-dependent nation, Obama seems to forget that America once had a robust, private mass transit network that was the envy of the world, parts of which still exist in the form of poorly-managed, decaying public transit authorities (most intracity bus routes in America were once private streetcar lines). The downfall of mass transit in America is a complex issue, but the massive network of subsidized highways begun by FDR and continued by Eisenhower was the final nail in the coffin of what was once America's most innovative industries. As convenient as it is for Obama to forget, it's a history that he'll have to face up to if he wants to dream bigger than his ill-conceived high-speed rail project. A perfect example of cargo cult urbanism, it seeks to emulate the frills of European and Japanese systems without actually allowing for the density that makes such networks feasible.

Someone also might want to remind Obama that the interstate highway system he is so proud of would not have been possible without the widespread use of eminent domain, to which he alludes in a dig at China:

Of course, some countries don't have this problem. If the central government wants a railroad, they get a railroad—no matter how many homes are bulldozed.

SOTU bonus: Like most Americans who said they'd watch the annual address, you probably didn't. But not to worry—Thomas Jefferson thought they were dumb, too:

Jefferson also found the State of the Union address to be too magisterial when delivered in person. He performed one and afterwards delivered them, as required by the constitution, only in writing.