When a problem and a solution match up nicely

WHEN A PROBLEM AND A SOLUTION MATCH UP NICELY…. It’s one of those situations that’s so blindingly obvious, it can be frustrating to even talk about.

On the one hand, we have crumbling American infrastructure, with a very strong need for major road, rail, and airport improvements. On the other, we have massive unemployment in the construction industry. Hey, one might think, why don’t we hire workers in need of a job to do infrastructure work, which in turn would improve the economy, boost public safety, help the environment, and improve American competitiveness?

With this in mind, after meeting with members of his cabinet, a bipartisan group of former secretaries of Transportation, mayors, and governors, President Obama spoke this morning on the need for infrastructure investment. First, on the seriousness of the problem…

“For years, we have deferred tough decisions, and today, our aging system of highways and byways, air routes and rail lines hinder our economic growth. Today, the average American household is forced to spend more on transportation each year than food. Our roads, clogged with traffic, cost us $80 billion a year in lost productivity and wasted fuel. Our airports, choked with passengers, cost nearly $10 billion a year in productivity losses from flight delays. And in some cases, our crumbling infrastructure costs American lives. It should not take another collapsing bridge or failing levee to shock us into action.

“So we’re already paying for our failure to act. And what’s more, the longer our infrastructure erodes, the deeper our competitive edge erodes. Other nations know this. They are going all-in. Today, as a percentage of GDP, we invest less than half what Russia does in their infrastructure, less than one-third what Western Europe does. Right now, China’s building hundreds of thousands of miles of new roads. Over the next 10 years, it plans to build dozens of new airports. Over the next 20, it could build as many as 170 new mass transit systems. Everywhere else they are thinking big. They are creating jobs today but they are also playing to win tomorrow. So the bottom line is our long shortsightedness has come due. And we can no longer afford to sit still.”

…and then on the sensible solution.

“By investing in these projects, we’ve already created hundreds of thousands of jobs. But the fact remains that nearly one in five construction workers is still unemployed and needs a job. And that makes absolutely no sense at a time when there is so much of America that needs rebuilding.

“That’s why, last month, I announced a new plan for upgrading America’s roads, rails and runways for the long-term. Over the next six years, we will rebuild 150,000 miles of our roads – enough to circle the world six times. We will lay and maintain 4,000 miles of our railways – enough to stretch coast-to-coast. And we will restore 150 miles of runways and advance a next generation air-traffic control system that reduces delays for the American people.

“This plan will be fully paid for, and will not add to our deficit over time — we are going to work with Congress to see to that. We are going to establish an Infrastructure Bank to leverage federal dollars and focus on the smartest investments. We want to cut waste and bureaucracy by consolidating and collapsing more than 100 different, often duplicative programs. And it will change the way Washington works by reforming the federal government’s patchwork approach to funding and maintaining our infrastructure. We’ve got to focus less on wasteful earmarks and outdated formulas, we’ve got to focus more on competition and innovation. Less on shortsighted political priorities — and more on national economic ones.”

It’s only fair to note that the president’s proposal should probably go even further — his infrastructure plan has real merit, but it’s also fairly modest given what’s possible and what’s needed.

Still, Obama’s vision is solid, and his willingness to focus attention on this is heartening. We have an obvious problem — weak economy, crumbling infrastructure, unemployed construction workers — with an equally obvious solution.

Remember, the price of raw materials is incredibly low right now. Bang for our buck, there hasn’t been an opportunity like this one — stretching our infrastructure dollars very far — in a long time. We can do an enormous amount of good on the cheap.

So what’s the problem? Congress is broken, “spending” is somehow perceived as “bad,” and desperately needed infrastructure investments probably won’t happen because Republicans won’t let it.