The boring—but important—issue politicians need to get people excited about

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Let me share with you a "Fight Club" inspired first rule of talking about, writing about, and especially campaigning about infrastructure:


Okay, I know I just broke my own rule. But I had to in order to make the point that no matter how important our roads, bridges, mass transit, and airports are to our very survival as a nation, the worst thing anyone who cares about them can do is talk endlessly about roads, bridges, mass transit, and airports, and use the dreaded "i-word." Doing so completely leaves out the human and emotionally powerful elements connected to the very process of moving America every day. And getting things done in America requires getting people emotionally invested.

Historian and author Robert Caro is the master at this technique and he's even used it to get people to care about the i-word. He did it in his award-winning first book, "The Power Broker" about New York City Parks Commissioner and master road builder Robert Moses. If you think it's hard to get people compelled to read a giant book about a guy who built highways 80 years ago, you're right. But Caro used the first chapter of his book to describe just how hard it was for families and especially children in New York to find places to play and relax at the beginning of the 20th century.

By the time most readers are done with that extremely emotion-laden chapter, they're crying out in their hearts for someone – anyone – to come along and fix this. And that's how Caro hooks you and gets you to understand how an autocratic and never-elected person like Moses could become so powerful for so long. Caro has done the same thing in his books about Lyndon Johnson, especially when he describes how hard life was life in rural Texas pre-electricity. I know some readers who burst into real tears while reading those chapters.

So how can an i-word crusader, politician, or construction magnate who wants to get people excited about roads, bridges, airports, and mass transit? Actually it's quite easy. You might think a road, no matter how badly pocked with pot holes, is just an uninspiring piece of pavement. But, getting from point A to point B in our daily lives is one of the most emotionally-charged things any of us do with any regularity. And with emotion comes the opportunity to engage and persuade. Are the politicians listening yet?

Think about it; "road rage" is real. A recent study by the Auto Insurance Center says the average commuter wastes more than a typical work week stuck in traffic each year. And does anything elicit more powerful emotions than getting stuck in a traffic jam? I don't know about you, but I can go from zero to full-on outrage in five seconds once I realize I'm stuck in traffic.

"Getting from point A to point B in our daily lives is one of the most emotionally-charged things any of us do with any regularity. And with emotion comes the opportunity to engage and persuade."

Jams are almost always the result of simple math; too many cars in too small a space at the same time. But how many of us realize that we're not "stuck in traffic," we "are the traffic?" And how many of us yell at the politicians, urban planners, and unions all responsible for giving us too few options other than being in that too small a space at the same time? (Okay, I do that every time I'm stuck in traffic but I'm a special case).

If there's one thing politicians are good at, or should be good at, it's tapping into voter anger. I might be a grizzled and cynical political observer, but a politician engineering a photo op while overlooking the perpetually gridlocked Cross Bronx Expressway would get my attention, especially if it were scheduled in the hours just after frustrating and infuriating commute to work. And lots of voters like me would likely get much more motivated to support more spending, and even tax hikes, to fix that godforsaken road.

What about commuters who take buses or trains to work? Or even better for our emotional triggers, a child who takes that bus or train to school? How do you feel when that bus or train is late or never shows up? How about when it's so crowded that you can't get a seat? Or it's so dirty you really don't WANT a seat? How about when even if everything is running perfectly, you're still facing a monster travel time to get to school?

My former hometown of Far Rockaway remains the longest subway ride to Manhattan. On a good day, it's 90 minutes. Far Rockaway is loaded with the kind of high rise public housing projects that have become dangerous virtual prisons for countless thousands of poor Americans. In 2013, the New York Post featured a story about a gifted young student living in one of those projects who wakes up at 5 am so he can begin a monster 2 hour and 40 minute daily commute – each way -- to get to the prestigious Bronx Science High School.

Attention politicians! Stop talking about bonds and bridges, find that kid and ride with him to school one day, all with the cameras rolling. Now, that will make the public support a shiny, new system to help that student get to school faster and safer, like permanent and affordable ferry service to Manhattan that Far Rockaway residents have been clamoring for these past 40 years.

It's not just the big cities that need help. Even small U.S. cities can be too expensive for most workers to live in, forcing them to commute 50+ miles to their jobs. That's an emotional issue for a growing number of Americans thanks to rising housing costs. Sometimes this problem crops up in other stories like the riots in Ferguson, Missouri of 2014. As Americans wondered how a town 25 minutes from St. Louis became so poor they found out that driving is the only real way to St. Louis, where the jobs are.

And despite extremely high unemployment and low median incomes, the vast majority of Ferguson residents were getting to work one at a time in cars, thus taking a huge bite out of their already small median incomes. An express bus, commuter train, or anything resembling affordable mass transit would have not only helped Ferguson residents with jobs stay out of poverty, but it would have also helped more Ferguson residents look for work in the first place.

When Ferguson was burning, the whole nation was watching. And while politicians focused on crime and cops, a smarter official could have waited a week or two and pointed out that our dreaded I-word in America has virtually trapped the people of Ferguson and a thousand other Fergusons in America to this kind of fate. The politician calling for more funding for those kinds of express buses or commuter trains would have a much better chance of breaking through if he or she used those emotionally charged riots to make the case.

If there's one thing politicians are good at, or should be good at, it's tapping into voter emotions and anger. That emotion is readily available in the supposedly boring "Moving America" issue otherwise known as the dreaded i-word. For those politicians who need help finding an emotionally powerful trigger for this issue other than video of a collapsed bridge, I just gave them three. Let's see who's savvy enough to use them.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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