In 2009, the President announced that the stimulus package would include eight billion dollars for high speed rail construction. Since then, he has budgeted additional funding for rail and chosen specific corridors to spend the money on. This high-speed rail plan has been widely derided as a boondoggle, even by many rail advocates. They argue that what was really needed were targeted upgrades to corridors that already had high ridership. Furthermore, they felt it would be preferable to get these corridors upgraded to "normal speed rail," because the benefits of high speed rail would not be worth the expense.
Those rail advocates may be right about the best things to build. If Obama were absolute dictator, maybe that's what he should have done. But he's part of a political system, and each of these projects requires support from several partly independent actors in the system. In that light, the rail plan was based on a relatively sound strategy, and is starting to look better and better.
Remember that there are four kinds of mode choices that people make: single trips, habits, investments and subsidies. Habits are predominantly chosen on the basis of availability and value, but the other three are often made on the basis of glamour, and occasionally amenities.
Subsidies, in particular, are decisions about the future. At the current pace of passenger rail construction in the United States, many of the politicians making decisions about passenger rail will be old or dead before a rail system could be of practical value to most of their constituents. They're making decisions for generations to come, which puts a lot of the discussion in the realm of fantasy and glamour.
Roads have a definite glamour to them. Although there are plenty of train songs and movies, and some about buses, ships, airplanes, spaceships, airships, bicycles, walking and even dogsleds, most of the media fantasies in the past sixty years have focused on cars. The dubious connection between driving and freedom is hammered into us in almost every half hour of television, every magazine. The road builders and airlines have a hand in this too. Visions of the future often involve wider roads, faster cars, faster planes and even flying cars and jetpacks.
The road plans currently being promoted all involve expanding the road network. Even if it's only a modest expansion like the Kosciuszko Bridge, it's still a step on the way to Tomorrowland. In contrast, the pragmatic vision of many rail advocates is a step on the road to the rail network we had in 1960. A lot of transportation geeks would be happy to have that back, but to the general public it's not exactly an inspiring vision. We had that back in 1960 and people chose to drive instead. Now the road network is vastly bigger than it was in 1960; why would people choose rail?
Obama and LaHood needed a vision of the future that would compete with the car vision, while still being in reach. The only thing that can do that is high-speed rail, with at least one demonstration corridor.