If ever an idea seemed ''right for its time'' it is the one now gathering momentum in Washington for a new federal jobs program to repair America's crumbling roads, highways, bridges, port facilities, dams, and sewers. Proposals are now coming from both sides of the political aisle, sparked not only by 10.4 percent unemployment, but the sharp gains made by Democrats in the recent midterm elections. House Democrats earlier this week announced a multibillion dollar jobs plan. Senate Republicans are urging President Reagan to back a somewhat similar but slightly more modest program.
The need is great. And, given the formidable logistics involved in any jobs program - anywhere from six to nine months just to identify projects, recruit workers, and get them out on a construction site - it is important that lawmakers move the issue to the forefront of their agenda for the special session of Congress beginning Nov. 29, as now urged by Democrats.
A new jobs program need hardly be considered a ''makework'' venture, although lawmakers will want to ensure against such a possibility. Nor need the outlay of billions of dollars for it be considered wasteful. The fact of the matter is that responsible studies - both federal and local - have repeatedly shown that the United States is lagging years behind in the maintenance and repair of its extensive network of public facilities. Each year of delay makes the ultimate repair work all the more expensive.
Take roadways: Some 8,000 of the 43,000 miles of interstate highways have been found to be literally crumbling away, and two-thirds of all other roads in the US need maintenance. Or dams: Studies by the US Army Corps of Engineers a year ago found more than 1,800 dams unrepaired, many of them located dangerously close to communities. Or bridges: More than 180,000 state and local bridges, and another 67,000 federal bridges, are considered structurally or functionally deficient, with many of those structures located in the Midwest and South.
President Reagan, who has hitherto resisted costly jobs programs, should not feel reluctant to accept the type of plans now being discussed. While the Democratic plan and the awaited Senate GOP version could be easily fused together, several aspects of the approach now being put together by Senate GOP leaders seem especially attractive:
* The Senate program would presumably be financed by a five-cent-a-gallon increase in the federal gasoline tax. The Department of Transportation estimates that such an increase (up from the current four cents) would bring in an additional $5.5 billion annually - enough to finance over 300,000 jobs a year.
* The plan is expected to target money and workers to those projects most in need of repair, as contrasted with the Democratic plan of earmarking jobs for areas of highest unemployment. The rebuilding efforts would be geared to making substantive improvements in public facilities, not just creating jobs for the sake of jobs. Such an approach need not be incompatible with the Democratic plan since many of the facilities needing the greatest repair happen to be in areas of highest unemployment. Thus, both sides should be able to arrive at a reasonable compromise.
* Finally, the GOP approach would be expected to include close government cooperation with private firms (which would assume contracts for repair work) and unions.
Even without high unemployment, the US would eventually have had to come to grips with rebuilding its massive infrastructure. That there is now high unemployment - and a huge labor pool of skilled workers eager to work - is good reason to get on with the task.