By Scott Helman, Boston Globe

The massive economic stimulus plan that Congress and President-elect Barack Obama are preparing to launch in January is shaping up to be an early test of Obama's ability to bring about the change he promised during his campaign, with economic realities threatening to undermine his call for a new era of smarter, "greener'' transportation.

As Obama's aides, lawmakers, industry associations, and interest groups furiously debate how to divide up an expected $50 billion in new road, mass transit, and rail spending, the president-elect is facing competing pressures.

On one hand, the goal of the stimulus bill is to kick-start the economy with a wave of short-term public spending projects across the country, and the quickest way to do that is to follow existing priorities. But it also offers a rare opportunity to shift American transportation in the long term toward a greener, more sustainable system that promotes mass transit and so-called smart growth over sprawl and patronage projects.

Traditionally, roads and highways have been given priority over mass transit, and federal transportation dollars have often been disbursed more according to political consideration than need. Critics of the current system are looking for Obama to use this bill to forge a different approach - one they say would elevate the national interest over parochial ones.

"If we just re-up for another go-around with the `Bridges to Nowhere,' that would be a tragic mistake,'' said David Goldberg, communications director for Transportation for America, a coalition that formed this fall to lobby for better transit planning.

But while the stimulus plan, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this week could cost about $600 billion overall, may take steps toward a more environmentally conscious transportation policy, this bill alone is not expected to be a vehicle for the kinds of significant changes many advocates want.

"Our priority is to create jobs and to get people working in the shortest possible time,'' said US Representative Jim Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who is helping write the bill. "To do that, we have to rely on projects that are ready to go to bid under existing formulas.''

Obama says the stimulus plan, which will award money to states and a variety of public agencies, will be the biggest public works investment since the government built the federal highway system more than a half-century ago. As the highway project was, this new investment could mark a seminal moment in transportation history.

After World War II, driving became enshrined as America's transportation mode of choice. Encouraged by government incentives, highways were built, families moved to far-flung suburbs, and cities morphed into sprawling metropolitan areas.

Between 1980 and 2000, the number of miles Americans drove overall rose more than 80 percent, according to federal figures. Mass transit, including intercity rail service, commuter rail systems, and subway and bus networks, has long been marginalized as "alternative transportation,'' said Doug Foy, an environmental and planning specialist who led former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's efforts on "smart growth,'' the concentration of housing, business, and transportation. For 50 years, Foy said, the philosophy was "progress is: drive more.''

Social, economic, and environmental shifts have altered that dynamic. The exodus from cities has slowed or even reversed from Boston to San Francisco, in part because people are seeking the kind of dense community experience their predecessors sought to escape. The volatility of gas prices, road congestion, and the growing concern about global warming have fueled demand for public transportation, and for more walkable and bike-friendly spaces. (Public transportation trips in the third quarter of 2008 were up 6.5 percent over the third quarter of 2007, the largest such increase in 25 years, according to the American Public Transportation Association.)

These trends are prompting calls for the government to use the stimulus bill to chart a new course, despite the easing of fuel prices. Environmental and sustainable-development advocates are lobbying for a funding shift toward mass transit, which is facing deficits around the country. And they want strings attached to money for roads and bridges that would prioritize repairs over new construction — partly to avoid new highway interchanges in areas that do not really need them.

"We really can't afford any more to do business as usual,'' said Melissa Hoffer, a vice president at the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation.

But every constituency has its own wish list and priorities for the stimulus bill. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, which has identified some 5,150 projects worth more than $64 billion it says could be started within a few months, rejects the restrictions that smart-growth groups are seeking, asserting that a growing state like Nevada may well need to build more roads.

"They need lanes, so they may very well add some lanes,'' said John Horsley, the group's executive director, adding that "voters and elected officials know better their special circumstances community by community than these self-appointed folks back here in Washington who are trying to decide things for them.''

Sentiments like that prompted the environmental group Friends of the Earth to assert in a solicitation to supporters that the stimulus bill will be "hijacked by the road-building lobby, which wants billions of dollars for unnecessary new roads that would increase global warming.''

The stimulus plan will need broad support to pass — especially in the Senate, where Republican votes are crucial. But two key principals, Obama and Pelosi, are both sympathetic to arguments that the government needs to change how it funds transportation.

Obama wrote a long letter this fall to the Transportation for America coalition saying he was committed to bulking up high-speed freight and passenger rail networks and public transit systems, promising to "reevaluate the transportation funding process to ensure that smart growth considerations are taken into account.'' Pelosi told Bloomberg Television this month that the stimulus package should invest in infrastructure "in a new, green way that causes a green revolution in our country.''

But Joshua Schank, director of transportation research at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank, said the stimulus bill, because it is meant to generate economic activity so quickly, is unlikely to usher in an era of transportation reform.

"That's the compromise you have to make,'' Schank said, even though "the system is so incredibly broken.''

The real changes to transportation policy, if they happen, could come later next year, when Congress takes up a separate, six-year transportation funding bill. Democratic lawmakers are already crafting some of the changes that environmentalists and sustainable growth groups want to see, such as creating an "office of livability'' to integrate planning and transportation initiatives and bringing mass transit into parity with highway projects.

"We're going to rewrite the whole book on this thing,'' Oberstar said. "But that has to wait.''

Scott Helman can be reached at shelman@globe.com. 

Copyright 2008 Boston Globe