You have to wonder: If Katrina and its multibillion-dollar bill to repair faulty levees haven't awakened us to our massive national infrastructure deficit, what will?
Regularly, the American Society of Civil Engineers reports on how disastrously far behind we are in fixing our outmoded or disintegrating roads, bridges, schools, dams, waterworks, rail and public transit systems. The total current national infrastructure gap they report is a numbing $1.6 trillion .
Then there's the gargantuan bill that inadequate infrastructure imposes on our public health and well-being - for example the 3.5 billion hours we spent in delayed traffic each year, wasting 5.7 billion gallons of fuel.
And how do we normally react? Mostly yawns. Or mild grumbling when Congress lays out billions for pork barrel projects.
Maybe there's more hope now. Katrina set the stage. Bridges to tiny Alaskan islands, funded to please powerful lawmakers, are suddenly under political attack. And our fiscal follies - unwarranted tax cuts, escalating deficits, unbounded entitlements - are finally worrying the public.
So the timing seems propitious for a national infrastructure plan not only robust enough to make a real impact, but based on clear, performance-based targets that give us confidence the billions we invest will be well spent and not frittered away for political expediency.
The new idea comes from Felix Rohatyn, a New York investment banker with decades of experience in government finance reform, and Warren Rudman, former Republican senator from New Hampshire and a founder of the Concord Coalition that pushes for more balanced, responsible federal budgets.
They are co-chairing a newly formed Commission on Public Infrastructure that's just surfaced an ingenious idea for a federally funded National Investment Corporation (NIC). Through it, states and local governments could obtain financing for a broad array of potential projects, in ground and air transportation, water systems and school buildings.
The new funding would replace existing federal highway and airport trust funds whose goals are already accomplished, but still pour out funds skewed to new facilities of dubious merit - for example, exurban roads that encourage sprawl, or port dredgings not dictated by demonstrable need.
The NIC would substitute targeted subsidies for blanket ones. It would stop favoring new construction even when maintenance, renovation and improved management are better ways to meet needs. Highways, airports and water projects would be forced to compete with wastewater and clean water projects, public transit, rail and the nation's massive deficit in adequate school buildings.
Just as vital, funds wouldn't flow unless projects could be shown to incorporate the best available technology, environmental protections and consideration of less expensive alternatives including, where appropriate, shares of private financing.
By issuing 50-year, self-financing bonds, the NIC could be expected to take a long-term view of infrastructure investment benefits. One can imagine a healthy, competitive federalism as individual states, groups of states, or groups of local governments coalesce to nominate strong projects and agree to repayment of the long-term debt (at rates lower than normal bond markets).
The idea is copied in part on the European Investment Bank that claims major credit for Europe's well-dated infrastructure, including the continent's superb network of high-speed trains.
Even post-Katrina, could a reform this sweeping win approval in the politically charged United States? Would Congress be willing to give up its pork-barrel privileges? Would we trust an NIC, even staffed with the highest-grade professionals, to be making critical infrastructure choices? Wouldn't critics deride the idea as big, centrally controlled government?
"This will be a very difficult sell in the near term," Rudman told me. "But the more we wait, the more it's going to cost." The NIC, he adds, would not only deliver much tighter cost-benefit analysis for infrastructure proposals but "engender much more public confidence in how we spend federal capital dollars than the way we do it now."
To the charge of big government or big bureaucracy, Rohatyn and Rudman reply: "We require government big enough and smart enough to be effective. That was the government of Lincoln and the transcontinental railroad, Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase, and Eisenhower and the national highway system."
Maybe today's political "outs" - the Democrats - could start the ball rolling by promising a campaign of major investment in the nation's infrastructure needs, free of political favoritism and based on an idea like the Rohatyn-Rudman NIC idea. How about a counterpart to the Newt Gingrich-led "Contract with America," based this time on building infrastructure for our future?
Ideally today's dominant Republicans, anxious to put the nation's Katrina unreadiness and multiple congressional scandals behind them, would agree to the idea in an effort to blunt the potential advantage to the Democrats.
Sure, it sounds unlikely. The political insiders will snicker. But couldn't partisan politics sometime work to our shared national advantage?
(c) 2005, The Washington Post Writers Group