Last summer. the Romney campaign clipped the phrase "You didn't build that" from an Obama speech in which the president had focused on how government services have helped private-business owners succeed. They took the out-of-context quote and inflated it into the main theme of the Republican Convention, with speaker after speaker declaring "We built it" to wild applause.
Well, rebuilding infrastructure is a prime example of what the president meant. As Obama said Tuesday, "Ask any CEO where they'd rather locate and hire: a country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed Internet, high-tech schools and self-healing power grids."
We can't think of a time that a private company built, or even repaired, any of those things.
And right now there are more structurally deficient bridges in this country than there are McDonald's - and, in Pennsylvania, we're No. 1, according to the state's Department of Transportation, with a higher percentage of deteriorating bridges than any other state. (Being structurally deficient doesn't mean that a bridge is unsafe - yet - but that it does need work. The average age of our bridges is 50.)
There's even more value to a "Fix-It-First" approach to repairing and improving infrastructure. Fixing older roads, bridges and transit systems is much healthier for the environment than building new. It's a lesson that the country, after decades of destructive sprawl, is just waking up to. Obama's intended laugh line about politicians showing up for the ribbon-cuttings got barely a self-aware snicker from members of Congress. But it pointed to the understandable tendency for politicians to favor new projects over the less-flashy maintenance and repairs. And that's environmentally counterproductive.
New development means more driving and more congestion. Just as repairing an older house expends much less total energy than building a new one, repairing old roads and bridges is more efficient, and cheaper, than building new ones.
The Fix It First model just makes more sense, so it's discouraging that a federal program that provides funding assistance for transportation projects is likely to be spending most of it on new road projects. Of the 28 projects that have applied for reduced-interest financing through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program, all but four are new construction or expansion of roads, transit or airports.
It will take time to change this mind-set, but there's no time like the present to start.