New crises loom in state's aging infrastructure : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Sunday, February 18, 2001

New Crises Loom in State's Aging Infrastructure

Quality of life: Power's the tip of the iceberg, experts agree, as the population outgrows water systems, roads, schools and airports.


Amid the tumult of California's electricity ordeal, an important fact often is lost: Energy is far from the worst of the state's long-term infrastructure problems. Policy experts from all over the political spectrum agree that there are greater threats to California's economy and quality of life over the next 20 years.

Strained water supplies, overcrowded airports, jammed freeways, poor schools and costly housing could prove much more complicated to tackle than keeping the lights on. The challenge will be enormous considering that, by an important federal measure, the state ranks last nationally in infrastructure spending per capita.

Though California may be able to import electricity from other states or countries to ease its power squeeze, it can't send its kids to classrooms in Oregon or divert flights to Arizona airports. "Compared to our other infrastructure problems, the energy problem is easily solvable," said Ross C. DeVol, director of regional and demographic studies at the Santa Monica-based Milken Institute.

Accustomed to living on the edge, Californians always have proved to be an adaptable lot. New technologies and wiser use of resources may allow the population to leverage its existing facilities in innovative ways. Already, creative methods for financing projects are emerging. Those changes could help avert doomsday scenarios of the Golden State turning dark, dry and hopelessly gridlocked. Yet the electricity debacle is a jolting reminder that California's failure to reinvest in itself has very real consequences.

Looming fallout from decades of disinvestment has some legislators and business organizations urging the state to start spending big on public works while there are budget surpluses available. The state's Department of Finance estimates that California will need to spend $82 billion over 10 years to shore up its aging infrastructure, though others put that figure at more than $100 billion.

Skeptics say private-sector solutions would better serve taxpayers. Still, the state's power troubles vividly demonstrate the risk of inaction.

"The electricity crisis in the state is just a symptom of a more fundamental issue: our lack of planning for the rapid growth and change which has been underway for decades and is going to accelerate," said Mark Baldassare, a pollster at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

How did California, home of concrete-pouring visionaries such as William Mulholland and Pat Brown, become the poster child for infrastructure neglect? Observers point to a variety of nuts-and-bolts factors, starting with the way projects are funded.

With the exception of gasoline taxes for highways, there is no dedicated revenue stream for infrastructure flowing into state coffers. The anti-tax revolution sparked by Proposition 13 in 1978 still makes bond issues problematic. Some say term limits haven't helped matters, encouraging legislators to think short-term.

What's more, public officials sometimes simply guessed wrong about the future. Gov. Gray Davis' own infrastructure committee--the Commission on Building for the 21st Century--neglected to single out electricity as a major trouble spot when it began meeting in 1999.

But the biggest change in the last quarter-century, historians and policymakers say, is the entire zeitgeist surrounding California's spectacular growth. After pouring vast sums into public works well into the 1970s--starting with Mulholland's aqueducts and then Gov. Brown's freeways--Californians saw their state being overrun and became ambivalent about the path it was on.

Officials scaled back spending on huge new projects. Postwar optimism that spending on world-class universities and highways would benefit the economy and society gave way to concerns about the population explosion that accompanied it. Now, amid ever-present worries about overcrowding, some see little to gain by promoting costly improvements that will only bring more development.

"There is strong feeling among many people . . . that we ought to not scale up infrastructure as a way of putting brakes on growth," said Brian Taylor, associate professor of urban planning at UCLA. "It's one of the fundamental dilemmas" dogging new public-works projects and housing construction in California.

But as a strategy to put the brakes on growth, scaling back on infrastructure has been a bust. Investment in infrastructure, as a percentage of state spending, has shrunk from nearly 20% in the late 1960s to around 3%. By one estimate, the state's highway capacity grew by only 7% between 1978 and 1998, yet the state's population jumped more than 40% during the same period. Translation: a lower quality of life.

Trends Bode Ill for Southland

Meanwhile, the population clock is ticking. California's population is expected to swell to 45 million residents--a 32% increase--by 2020. Those who stand to profit from building more infrastructure have reason to hype the potential for disaster. Still, the trends bode particularly ill for Southern California.

Steven P. Erie, director of UC San Diego's urban studies and planning program, calculates that--if current growth trends continue--the region's roads could be so choked with cars that to park them all would require paving over the equivalent of half the San Fernando Valley. Based on similar growth projections, a prolonged dry spell would have some of the Southland going thirsty within two decades.

Apart from the coming population pressures, maintaining existing infrastructure is proving to be an enormous challenge. Spending of inflation-adjusted dollars to operate state facilities has climbed from $100 per capita in 1930 to around $550 by 1996, according to analysis by the Public Policy Institute.

But David Dowall, co-author of the study, said the investment isn't enough. The UC Berkeley professor of city and regional planning calculates that years of deferred maintenance have created a $500 million backlog of repairs on his campus.

He sees evidence of it daily. Sproul Plaza, birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, is riddled with buckled pavement. Some classroom tools are more like museum pieces. "I've been using the same overhead projector since 1976," Dowall said. Such travails lack the high drama of the energy swoon. But the cumulative toll of California's burgeoning infrastructure mess is substantial and climbing. "Infrastructure first impacts the quality of life," said Stephen Levy, director of the Palo Alto-based Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy. "We know that through rising housing prices, long commutes, stress on families, overcrowding at schools, delays at airports--all of the things we're experiencing in 2001--if we don't attend to the infrastructure, the first victims will be us, through the degrading of our quality of life, and the second victim will be the economy because eventually business won't want to locate in a region where their workers don't want to live."

The Texas Transportation Institute estimates that traffic jams cost L.A. drivers more than $12.4 billion annually in wasted time, fuel and other costs. That's nearly $1,400 for every person of driving age.

The region's airports, whose cargo handling is crucial to the economy, face a crunch of their own. Barring expansions, Southern California's commercial air hubs could be pushed beyond their capacity sometime between 2010 and 2015, based on current projections for growth in passenger and cargo traffic. If you combined the seven major commercial airports in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas, they would cover just over 8,000 acres -one-quarter the expanse of Denver International Airport.

What's more, Southern California's historic bugaboo, the water supply, is dwindling. Estimates show that if rainfall follows its normal pattern over the next two decades, the reserves of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California--a cooperative supplying 26 water districts in the region--will sink from 35% of current demand now to a perilous 5%.

Environmentalists and their allies, particularly in Northern California, have repeatedly blocked efforts to to build a peripheral canal that could benefit Southern California by bringing water from above the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta into the California Aqueduct. Most recently, in 1998, 15 state and federal agencies shelved a proposal for a $10.5-billion canal project.

Shortage of Water

If California runs into another major dry spell and current consumption and growth patterns continue, Southern California could suffer a shortfall of 310,000 acre-feet of water--the amount that 600,000 families use every year. And that shortage comes even before taking into account the problems posed by chromium 6 and arsenic in water aquifers around the state.

These threats don't mean doomsday for California, experts say. Solutions to some infrastructure shortfalls are beginning to emerge. If today's power crisis brings to a head the question of what kind of future Californians want, they might find answers in technology and other innovations.

When it comes to water, for instance, there is a long-term, albeit costly, answer--desalinating water from the Pacific Ocean. On the transportation front, there are new, privately built highway lanes in Orange County.

And on overcrowding, the state has begun expanding tuition aid to students at private universities, which could help ease the space crunch at public institutions.

California historian Kevin Starr said the emergence of the Internet and other new technologies may shift the state's infrastructure priorities. Instead of building miles of new freeways, he said, perhaps the state should encourage new investments in high-speed telecommunications.

"We're entering a whole new way of using space, of generating income and of communicating, and that will have powerful effects on what the appropriate infrastructure projects are," Starr said.

That doesn't change the fact that California is at the bottom of the heap nationally when it comes to spending on infrastructure. The latest U.S. Census Bureau figures, which cover 1998, show that California spent $110.82 per capita on such outlays. The second lowest spending state, Maine, spent 44% more than California.

Davis' Commission on Building for the 21st Century is due to deliver its final report on the state's top infrastructure priorities within the next few months. It is expected to outline an approach for dealing with those issues.

William Hauck, head of the commission's finance committee, said his group will try to convince legislators to earmark 1% of the state's general fund not already mandated for education to be spent to shore up California's aging public facilities.

Hauck, president of the California Business Roundtable, knows it won't be easy. His organization previously proposed devoting a portion of the state sales tax to infrastructure. That idea went nowhere. But Hauck said legislators are starting to recognize the need to reinvest for the next generation.

"If you can't move people and goods, you strangle the economy," he said. "But you can't fix it for free." * * * Shrinking Resources

The following figures reflect the portion of the state budget devoted to paying for infrastructure, including capital outlays on facilities such as college campuses, freeways, office buildings and state prisons.

Fiscal year* Percentage 1967 19.57 1968 14.81 1969** 17 1970 10.33 1971 9.76 1972 10.63 1973 9.12 1974 7.36 1975 4.92 1976 3.46 1977 3.78 1978 3.38 1979 3.47 1980 2.57 1981 1.96 1982 1.11 1983 1.36 1984 1.11 1985 1.28 1986 2.46 1987 2.00 1988 1.90 1989 1.84 1990 1.98 1991 2.01 1992 1.54 1993 1.43 1994 2.47 1995 0.85 1996 0.84 1997 2.39 1998 1.57 1999 1.81 2000 1.18 2001 3.41 2002 2.74

Note: The figures exclude federal funds included in the state budget. For the coming fiscal year (listed as 2002 here), the budget figures take into account only the $65.9 billion in state funds included in Gov. Davis' budget proposal. Overall, including federal funds, the proposed budget for the coming fiscal year is $104.7 billion. * Fiscal years extend from the previous July through June of that year. ** Only rounded figure available. Source: California Department of Finance California's Mass Appeal Despite California's increasing congestion and infrastructure problems, state officials project the population will continue to grow briskly in coming decades. The state's population, in millions: 1950: 10.6 million 1960: 15.9 1970: 20.0 1980: 23.8 1990: 29.9 2000*: 33.9 2010**: 40.0 2020**: 45.4 * U.S. census figure is subject to revision. ** California Department of Finance projection Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, California Department of Finance Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times

-- Swissrose (, February 18, 2001

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