Friday, September 23, 2011

Not Exactly Shovel Ready

Andrew Malcolm of the Los Angeles Times is (apparently) the only media figure that caught President Obama in another embarrassing gaffe the other day.

It came during his heavily-publicized speech next to the Brent Spence Bridge, spanning the Ohio River between Covington, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio. The "optics" (as the political class describes them) were aimed at generating support for Mr. Obama's new jobs bill. Never mind that the bridge he used as a backdrop isn't falling down; it's merely congested and much of that problem will be alleviated by the planned construction of a new bridge across the Ohio, about five miles downstream. Unfortunately, the project won't get underway until 2015, so construction workers hoping to build the new span won't be hired for another 48 months or so.

Of course, Mr. Obama didn't mention any of those inconvenient facts in his speech. But he did make one rather astonishing claim, as Mr. Malcolm reminds us:

Now, we used to have the best infrastructure in the world here in America. We’re the country that built the Intercontinental Railroad, the Interstate Highway System. (Applause.) We built the Hoover Dam. We built the Grand Central Station. (Applause.)

So how can we now sit back and let China build the best railroads? And let Europe build the best highways? And have Singapore build a nicer airport? At a time when we've got millions of unemployed construction workers out there just ready to get on the job, ready to do the work to rebuilding America.

The Intercontinental Railroad? Is that the one that connects San Francisco and Tokyo, or New York and London. Obviously, they don't exist. We assume President Obama was referring to the transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869. It remains a marvel of engineering and speed, largely because immigrant work crews didn't have an OSHA inspector demanding hearing protection for everyone, or the EPA trying to protect every bug, bird and snake that lived along the railroad's right-of-way.

Which leads us to another element missing from Mr. Obama's address: The legal and regulatory difficulties associated with many of his beloved infrastructure projects. Securing authorization for a new airport serving a major city would be a nightmare, complete with scores of lawsuits and endless red tape, ensuring that the project complies with thousands of federal, state and local rules (assuming it ever gets off the ground). That's a big reason that most localities are content to expand or improve existing facilities, avoiding the 20 years (and billions of dollars) required to build a major airport from scratch.

It's also worth noting that some of the overseas projects touted by President Obama are being described as failures. China's high-speed rail network, often touted as a "model" for the U.S., has run up close to $300 billion in debt, and most travelers still prefer slower (but much cheaper) buses. In fact, it's hard to find a bullet train line anywhere that's making money.

Clearly, Mr. Obama isn't going to sweat those details. He's desperately trying to sell his jobs bill and paint Republicans as obstructionists who want Americans to remain unemployed. Besides, if most Americans actually read the jobs plan, they'd see it for what it is: Stimulus II (or is it III), aimed at benefiting the president's friends in big labor and the public employee unions. Never let the ugly truth get in the way of a good political narrative.

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