I once received a lesson in light travel packing from a former military guy: Put everything you need in a pile. Then ask, "What do I really need?" Remove half of your stuff. Then ask again, "What do I really need?" Remove half your stuff again. Now you're ready to hike Pikes Peak.
It seems like similar questions are being asked of infrastructure. Do we really need bike paths? Do we really need to spend above the highway trust fund? NextGen's not really in trouble, is it? It's as if the pencil pushers want to freeze every road, bridge, runway, and railway in place until they are ready to handle them. Compared to the fiscal cliff or the debt ceiling, the need isn't immediate. So infrastructure simmers on the back burner while policymakers put out the bigger fires.
There has not been a scintilla of conversation in the presidential election about infrastructure, unless you accept the tangential debate over the auto bailout. The possibility of an automatic cut in discretionary spending looms over big chunks of the Transportation Department, but nobody is paying attention. (It's hard to yell that the infrastructure sky is falling when everyone else is making the same claim about their issue.)
No one disputes that infrastructure development will be a critical component of economic growth over the next several decades. The problem is, the people who run the show just can't deal with it yet.
So here is the existential question: What do we really need? Where should we focus our efforts, given the limited attention span of the federal government? What should we be talking about? Technology? Private-sector involvement? What are the big ideas? And how can we shrink the big ideas into a backpack that we can carry to the summit?