California's economy may be on the mend, but prospects for continued growth are severely constrained by the increasing obsolescence of the state's basic infrastructure. Once an unquestioned leader in constructing new roads, water systems, power generation and building our human capital, California is relentlessly slipping behind other states, including some with much lower tax and regulatory burdens.
The indications of California's incipient senility can be found in a host of reports, including a recent one from the American Society of Civil Engineers, which gave the state a “C” grade. Roads, in particular, are in bad shape, as many drivers can attest, and, according to another recent study, are getting worse. The state's shortfall for street repair is estimated at $82 billion over the next 10 years.
Remarkably, given how Californians spend and tax ourselves, we actually bring up the rear in terms of road conditions. Indeed, one recent survey placed California 47th among the states in road quality. In comparison, low-tax Texas notched No. 11, showing that willingness to spend money is not the only factor.
Greater Los Angeles is particularly affected; L.A. roads have been ranked by one Washington-based nonprofit as the worst in the nation. Bad roads cost L.A. drivers an average $800 a year in vehicle repairs, and a full quarter of roadways were graded “F,” meaning barely drivable. The region that gave birth to the freeway and the dream of quick, efficient travel, now has worse roads than some much poorer, less-important, lower-tax cities, such as Houston, Dallas or Oklahoma City. Not surprisingly, Los Angeles has been ranked has having the worst traffic congestion in the nation, but San Francisco and San Jose also make it to the 10 metros with the worst traffic.
But it's not just the roads that are in bad shape. Other basic sinews of the state's infrastructure – ports, water systems, electrical generation – are increasingly in disrepair. Conditions are so poor at Los Angeles International Airport, admits new L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, that “there's nothing world class” about the aging facility. This is critical for a city and region with significant global pretensions. Since 2001, LAX traffic has declined by more than 5 percent, while double-digit gains in passenger traffic have been logged by such competitors as New York, Miami, Atlanta and Houston.
Meanwhile the Los Angeles-Long Beach port system, facing greater competition from the Gulf Coast, as well as other Pacific Coast ports, has been beleaguered by regulations that, among other things, mandate moving heavy loads with zero-emission but expensive, underpowered electric trucks that further undermine port productivity. Rather than see the ports as job and wealth generators, ports also have become increasingly sources for revenue for hard-hit city budgets.
Overall, the bills are mounting; California faces an enormous shortfall in infrastructure. One study, conducted by California Forward, puts the bill for the next 10 years at $750 billion.
The case for addressing infrastructure needs should be compelling on its own but, given fiscal limitations, it's critical first to set some sense of priority. California, particularly under the current governor's father, the late Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, spent upward of a fifth of its budget on basic infrastructure; today that share is under 5 percent. Rather than build the infrastructure that might spark the economy, as the elder Brown did, we have chosen, instead, to spend on government salaries and pensions, which, however well-deserved, require a transfer of wealth from the private sector to the public sector that brings only minimal benefits.
These shortfalls are made even worse by ideological considerations that, in this one-party-rule state, overcome even the most rational approach to infrastructure development. The ruling class in Sacramento speaks movingly about the Pat Brown legacy, but has little interest in mundane things like roads, bridges, port facilities and other economically useful infrastructure. Instead, the powerful green and planning clerisy is focused on transforming the state into a contemporary ecotopia, where people eschew cars, live in crowded apartment towers and ride transit to work. Economic considerations, upward mobility and the creation or retention of middle-class jobs are, at best, secondary concerns.
This ideological bent leads to grossly misplaced priorities. Consider, for example, the billions of dollars being proposed for building Gov. Jerry Brown's signature project, a $68 billion, 800-mile high-speed rail system, even as state highways erode. The bullet train, which even liberals such as Kevin Drumm at Mother Jones magazine have pointed out, has devolved into a boondoggle with costs far above recent estimates and, given the lack of interest from private investors, something unlikely to offer much of an alternative to commuters for decades to come. Unlike many liberal commentators, who tend to favor crony-capitalist projects with a “green” cast, Drumm denounced the entire project as being justified with projections, such as for ridership, that are “jaw-droppingly shameless.”
In addition, the project's future has been clouded by legal challenges from a host of complainants stretching from Central Valley farmers to suburbanites on the San Francisco peninsula. In December, Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny in Sacramento County accused the state high-speed rail authority of ignoring provisions in the authorizing legislation for the project designed to prevent “reckless spending.”
Public support for this misguided venture has been fading, thankfully. Even before Judge Kenny's decision, a USC/Los Angeles Times poll showed statewide voter opposition rising to 53 percent, while 70 percent would like to have a new vote on the legislation that authorized the project.
At the same time, federal funding, critical to keeping this failing project afloat, grows increasingly unlikely. California Congressman Jeff Denham, also a former supporter of the project, joined with Congressman Tom Latham to ask the federal Government Accountability Office if further federal disbursements could be illegal, given the uncertainty of the state funding needed to “match” the federal dollars. With Republicans likely to retain the House after the 2014 elections, it seems all but certain that high-speed rail – at least the statewide system proposed by its advocates – is heading to a less-than-spectacular denouement.
This tendency to allow ideological considerations to overcome logic suffuses virtually the entire planning process across the board. For example, devotion to alternative energy sources leads the state to reject the expanded use of clean, cheap and plentiful natural gas in favor of extremely expensive renewable fuels, notably wind and solar. This may have much to do with the investments by crony capitalists close to Democratic politicians – think Google or a host of venture-capital firms – as with anything else. Under the right circumstances, such as government mandates, even unsound investments can make some people rich, or, in this case, even richer.
But the cost to the rest of society of such Ecotopian policies can be profound, and could cost as much as $2,500 a year per California family by 2020. High energy prices will severely affect the state's already-beleaguered middle- and working-class families, particularly in the less-temperate interior of the state.
The commitment to expensive energy also makes bringing new industry – such as manufacturing or logistics – that can provide jobs ever more problematical. Similarly, money poured into follies like high-speed rail also weaken the state's ability to fund, directly or through bonds, more-critically needed, if less-politically correct, transport infrastructure.
Given these clear abuses of the public purse, it is not surprising that some Californians may simply want to close their wallets. Yet this would be a disservice to future generations, who will need new roads, ports, bridges and electrical generation. California needs to rediscover its historic commitment to being an infrastructure leader, but only after acquainting ourselves once again with the virtues of common sense.
This story originally appeared at The Orange County Register.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.