The Obama administration’s FY2012 transportation budget request shows their continued strong support for a range of programs designed squarely to change the way Washington does business. Through the budget, they are trying incrementally to move transportation away from a roundly criticized federal block grant program that is as both broke and broken to one that uses competitive grants, rigorous analyses of benefits and costs, and leverages a range of both public and private funding sources.

They propose to do this through programs Race to the Top-like competitions for transportation agencies, a National Infrastructure Bank, and governmental streamlining for outdated programs (though more details about the programs and their impacts on our metropolitan areas are still sorely needed.)

While together these represent significant and important federal reforms, no doubt the administration’s continued push for high speed rail will continue to garner a lot of attention.

And for good reason. The call for $53 billion over six years to be funded through the same pot of money as highways, essentially putting rail on an equal footing with highways, has more than raised the hackles of industry types.

But, in sharp contrast to other departments like Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, and Labor, the total outlays transportation budget request includes a $12 billion increase from FY2010 to 2012. That increase is pretty much across-the-board and represents a doubling of the core transit programs. The point that the administration appears to be making is that, while fiscal austerity is the overriding principle, delivering the next American economy still demands connected and intelligent 21st century infrastructure. A new poll shows Americans agree with this to a large degree and is a lesson we are learning from abroad in country after country after country.

Of course, how to fund such a large and important investment remains an open question. That same poll shows little appetite for tolling or a gas tax increase, the obvious sources. While issuing transportation bonds and removing certain subsidies for oil and gas companies rate favorably, it is still not entirely clear how we move from a program that increasingly reliant on general funds and debt today to a larger, fully-funded program in the future. We do have evidence that, in multiple metro areas, the American people will vote for local tax increases to fund transportation investments--even in the midst of the recession--if they know what they’re getting for their money. We need the same kind of assurances from the federal government.

In the meantime, the immediate struggle is with House Republicans about the FY2011 budget. To say these two budgetary proposals are on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum would rank understatement. The House plans to gut certain competitive multi-modal programs (the so-called TIGER grants), passenger rail, and public transit. All get a significant bump in the administration’s proposal for next year.

An interesting debate is shaping up in Washington. But we cannot afford to dither. While salvos are launched from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, U.S. states and metropolitan areas are caught in the crossfire.

Note: Links now fixed.