Neil Irwin previews tonight's State of the Union address, in which President Obama will again plead with Congress to fund the rebuilding of the nation's troubled roads, bridges, and power grid. "The big question on infrastructure is whether the White House is correctly reading the politics of the moment. Could Congressional Republicans be ready to sign on to some form of large-scale investment in the nation’s transportation and energy infrastructure? Or is Obama tilting at windmills (literally, in this case)."
"It comes as we may be approaching the end of a five year period in which investing in the nation’s physical infrastructure has been something close to a free lunch," explains Irwin. "With interest rates near all-time lows and millions of construction workers unemployed, the last few years have been a time that it would have been a historical bargain for the United States to do upgrades to roads, bridges, and airports that will eventually need to take place anyway. It has been a political breakdown—in particular conservatives’ view of almost any non-defense federal spending as wasteful—standing in the way."
But, he notes, with the election behind us, the political winds have changed, and time is running out for bargain basement prices. "One can easily imagine a deal: Democrats get their new infrastructure spending, and Republicans insist on a structure that requires private sector lenders to be co-investors in any projects, deploying money based on its potential return rather than where the political winds are tilting."
"In other words, the two sides could negotiate in good faith and, in the process, get a better outcome for the U.S. economy than either party could operating on its own. Now that would be something to see."