Good politics requires good theater, which was exactly what President Donald Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer provided us with last week as they put aside differences for a while and pledged to work together to deliver a $2 trillion infrastructure program.
The president offered the speaker some Tic Tacs, and she accepted. The minority leader praised the president for offering $100 billion more than what the Democratic leadership wanted. It was as if the Kavanaugh hearings and the Mueller report were ancient history and forgotten. All that is left now is finding a way to pay for a $2 trillion investment.
The truce between Trump and the Democratic leadership may lead to nothing. However, that does not mean the nation's infrastructure problems are going away. Too many roads and bridges need work, and much of the underground infrastructure is old and needs replacing if it is to be in service another hundred years.
Solving the infrastructure problem or problems may require innovative solutions. The Louisville metro area had a problem with old, congested bridges crossing the Ohio River. Officials in Kentucky and Indiana cooperated and built two new bridges at a total cost of $2.3 billion. The downside of that is that the new bridges require tolls.
The Louisville bridges don't have toll booths. Instead, drivers can buy a transponder, or cameras, will photograph a vehicle's license plate and a bill will be sent to the owner.
That may be the answer to many of our infrastructure problems. The people with the most direct benefit will be required to pay more of the cost directly.
Bridge tolls are easy. How do you apportion the costs of a project among beneficiaries when there is no direct way of identifying them? The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has some navigation dams that need major rehabilitation. At present companies that haul cargo pay a tax based on the amount of diesel fuel they consume. Some in the river industry say those dams provide other benefits. Water companies benefit from having a more stable source of water. Utilities with hydroelectric power plants at those dams benefit. Recreational boaters benefit. How do you calculate the fair share those users should pay, and how do you collect it?
Many areas need a public water system, and many cities have outdated stormwater collection systems. People waiting on money from Washington to address them could be disappointed. If only sewer lines were as good for ribbon-cutting photo ops as dams and roads are.
Even if we had shovel-ready infrastructure projects just waiting for money, there's also the question of whether we have enough skilled trades workers to build them. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., addressed that in a tweet on Wednesday, the day after the meeting in the White House.
"If we're going to rebuild our roads, bridges, water systems and other infrastructure, it's important we have the skilled workforce to do the work. Any comprehensive infrastructure package must address the skills gap and provide investments in workforce development and training," McKinley wrote.
We'll have to wait and see exactly what projects the president and the leaders of the opposition party come up with and how we are supposed to pay for them. The hope here and elsewhere is that they can set aside their differences for the benefit of the nation. We could use another round of investment in infrastructure. Not pork barrel projects done for the glory of politicians whose names can be attached to them, but wealth-producing projects that will truly move the nation and its economy forward.