President Obama’s economic stimulus plan should eventually provide travelers with better roads, faster trains, more modern airports and smoother air travel.

That's because transportation won big in the $787 billion stimulus package, snaring nearly $50 billion in federal funds. But it will take time for all these upgrades to kick in—and none of them is likely to lower the cost of travel for individuals or companies.

But in terms of those who can expect more comfortable and efficient rides in the future, rail passengers are among the biggest winners now.

Rail Riders Will See Upgrades
For starters, Amtrak will get an infusion of $1.3 billion. This is big bucks for Amtrak, inheritor of America’s once-robust passenger rail system, which has often been starved for funds since it was created by Congress in 1970. New tracks, new signals and upgraded stations are on the to-buy list. However, this is infrastructure money, not passenger ticket subsidies, so it won’t make fares fall.

An additional $8 billion is earmarked for future high-speed rail corridors on the West Coast and in the Northeast. Trains could reach 110 miles per hour, well short of the 180 mile-per-hour bullet trains in Europe and Japan, but still a boost for long-suffering American train riders.

Commuters Catch a Break
Some $8.4 billion more is slated for upgrades of subways, trams, light-rail systems and other public transit programs.

The lion’s share of transportation stimulus money—$29 billion—will be poured into repairing shaky bridges and cracked, bumpy highways and streets. Expect coast to coast construction delays as workers labor to create safer, smoother highways that haven’t been systematically upgraded in years.

Big construction projects are, of course, job rich, and creating upward of 3.5 million jobs is one of Obama’s announced goals.  Taken together, such mega-projects will take years to complete.

Airports Will Modernize
Airports, too, will get a $2.1 billion infusion of public funds.

“The stimulus package will allow airports to move forward with much-needed infrastructure projects, while putting tens of thousands of people across the country to work,’’ said Greg Principato, president of the North American branch of Airports Council International in a recent statement.

Up to $550 million of the airport money must be spent within 120 days, and another $550 million within a year, a provision that underscores the urgency policymakers feel about the global financial crisis and the need to create American jobs.

Some $1 billion earmarked for airports will go to “accelerate procurement and installation of baggage screening and checkpoint security equipment at airports,’’ according to an Airports Council International report.

The nation’s airlines, struggling with a downturn in travel and volatile fuel prices, will not receive aid from the stimulus package, but air travelers will nevertheless benefit from an infrastructure upgrade, says James C. May, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association.

“Modernization of the nation’s airways must be at the top of the list,’’ says May. “Aviation is the most powerful enabler of commerce. It is a job multiplier and a key to economic growth.’’

The Air Transport Association has been pushing for years for a “next generation’’ air-traffic control system based not on radar but the more modern global satellite positioning system. Obama’s stimulus plan doesn’t usher in a whole new system but it does direct $200 million to Federal Aviation Administration power systems, air traffic control towers, lighting and navigation and landing equipment. That should make air travel safer, which is no small consideration in the wake of the recent major crashes in New York City and Buffalo.

Infrastructure grants won’t make airfares fall. Nor will they do away with airline fees for amenities such as meals, pillows and extra legroom. Such fees generate badly need revenue that airlines haven’t been able to capture by raising fares. They’re here to stay.

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