During the 90 minutes of the first 2012 presidential election debate, neither President Obama nor Gov. Romney managed even a brief mention of the "I-word": Infrastructure—roads and bridges and water systems—never came up. In their exchanges, the candidates almost completely sidestepped public works, treating the subject like a distant dream in our national consciousness. A more substantive

debate would have discussed infrastructure, prioritizing types of public works and proposing ideas on how to pay for them.

To be fair, Obama has, in the past, put his weight behind infrastructure. It could be argued the 2009 economic stimulus measure was the "world's largest sidewalk repair program," but it did fund both traditional infrastructure and renewable energy. And although it added to the deficit, it also created jobs or kept temporarily jobs that would have vanished.

Obama has spoken about alternative-energy sources as the basis of a new, higher-paying industry and, noting the building of the transcontinental railroad in the controversial times right after the Civil War, he did highlight during the debate the role of the federal government. However, he did not present the infrastructure challenges now facing the U.S. as a pressing, urgent need. Indeed, the recently passed legislation funding basic highway, bridge and transit improvements has not received a strong follow-through push from the Oval Office.

Romney’s Promises

In his first years as Massachusetts governor, Romney put forward a promising, modally balanced plan emphasizing repairs. Although he tried to set the Big Dig straight and end agency fiefdoms, he never followed up as politics intruded and his thoughts turned toward the White House—not a very promising sign. Furthermore, we assume that, along with other Republicans, Romney wants the sun to set on energy production tax credits, a program that, since 1992, gives aid to allow wind-energy and solar-panel manufacturers to be competitive.

However, at the debate, what discussion did take place suffered as both candidates played fast and loose with the facts about revenue and taxes. For example, Romney inaccurately stated that, of the $90 billion that Obama "put into breaks for the green-energy world," about "half" the companies involved had gone out of business. According to Factcheck.org, much of the assistance was in the form of loan guarantees, and only three of 26 companies that received guarantees filed for bankruptcy protection.

More than anything, the drumbeat about the budget deficit and the need for jobs has marginalized any national discussion about rail and roads on their own merits. Instead, the debate bogged down in the details of how to handle America's deficit and debt.