Everything is politics. To do anything, a strong enough coalition must be assembled to counteract the opposition. These kinds of coalitions can take long times to assemble, or coalesce quickly, depending on the scale of the problem.
Let us take, as an example, the road coalition. It took a half a century from the invention of the automobile before a strong road coalition came into existence--a half a century during which the car had to go through an image shift from rolling death machine to tool for freedom--and the development of movements and companies providing improved auto infrastructure (e.g. tire companies, gas companies, Better Roads, etc.) It took fundamentally proscriptive and ultimately myopic urban movements (Garden Cities, public housing) as well as a tapping into Americans' escapist tendencies. And it had to do it all fighting the rail lobby, then one of the most powerful in the country. It ultimately gained the upper hand not due to itself, but rather because the ICC insisted on draconian rail policy, undermining shippers' profitability, while states saw them as rolling banks and incurred high taxation on them, all the while absolutely subsidizing their competition.
Ultimately the rail lobby failed, the roads movement succeeded beyond its wildest expectations, and American railroading began its long half-century collapse from the cream of American pride and culture to a peripheral transportation solution focused on moving bulk goods. Alongside our railroads' collapse has been our manufacturing sector's, to a state where it, too, is now economically peripheral.
The road-based system then established itself as culturally central. Interstates replaced the great rail networks as our country's crown jewels. But it's a system that is internally unsustainable, starting to grind toward its own collapse; a generational shift has begun to reject it; and it's time to build a coalition toward a major transportation shift.
In his Sunday Train blog, Bruce McF began feeling the way toward such a coalition. But a coalition that would ultimately be successful would have to unite a majority of Americans, a majority of American politicians, and (ironically enough) couple into the dominant economic hegemony of the era*. So the question isn't just what vested interests would be interested in his Steel Interstate proposal--it's also what compromises are needed to win over otherwise unaligned interests.
Right now our politics are dominated by a neoliberal/neoconservative ascendency which has been in power, regardless of party alignment, since 1980; these politics are linked to Austrian School neoclassical economics, which favor "free-market" solutions and dogmatically believe in the idea that markets can and always will self-correct--but this hegemony is opposed by those both on the right and the left, by populist movements both progressive and regressive (Occupy v. the Tea Party), by ideologies by both right and left.
The two largest ideologies opposed to the current status quo are the progressives and the libertarians**.
In order for the Steel Interstates to be politically viable in any form, it must be as a coalition between these two ideologies. To do that, a compromise must be reached.
This is not a difficult compromise. Steel Interstates mark a realization that our current transportation paradigm is unbalanced, structured to support ecologically self-destructive means, and that only massive investment or economic/ecologic ruin can rectify this imbalance--just as Better Roads did in its day. Libertarians, too, recognize this imbalance, and (what is today) the radical proposal*** to privatize the Interstates would likewise begin to rectify it.
Granted, the Steel Interstates, as a populist proposal, grew out of a plan opposing a road privatization. We must remember here that that so-called "privatization" was really just a government handout, a boondoggle where the government had all the capex risk, but the private entity all the reward. In a true privatization, the private entity must assume both risk and reward. Leasing the Interstates as-is would do so.
The compromise I offer is that we convert the embodied capital in the Interstates into a financial asset, which we then use to improve our railroads to a like condition (i.e. subsidize the railroads to develop their core mainlines to Steel Interstate standards). In this manner, both major forms of higher-level ground transportation are handled by equivalent enterprise, that is, private enterprise. The alternative is nationalization of the railroads--politically untenable in our day and age.
At this point, the coalition can court interested vested interests, such as what Mr. McF mentioned.
Bring the progressives and the libertarians to the same playing table, and real opposition to the status quo begins to cook--and I would not be surprised if there are many more grounds for progressive-libertarian compromise. If a coalition can assemble a powerful enough policy package, one (this is dominated by Millennial policy concerns) concerned with improving mass and non-motorized transportation, the changeover from fossil fuels to sustainable energy sources, and social policies like some form of universalized^ healthcare, a separation of church and state in the field of marriage, empowering (rather than disempowering) labor policy, and so on.
It is clear that, even in its infancy, Millennial political policy is radically distinctive from the post-Progressive status quo. The work involved in bringing Millennial policy to reality will be fascinating to watch and work for.
* One could say the current road-based transportation paradigm has been running on its own inertia since 1980, when the economic hegemony that built it (Progressivism 1.0) failed and was replaced by "neo"
-ism and its economic policy, Austrian School neoclassicism. Railroads 1.0 where the product of an era of laissez-faire libertarianism. Our road coalition arose alongside the Progressive ascendency.
** I'm not talking about the status quo that masquerades as libertarianism, I'm talking about that particular branch Republican Party elite enjoy ostracizing.
*** Just like the Steel Interstates are a radical proposal...
^ Note term.