It is the first such report in six years:  This week a group of over 100 well-qualified, respected professional engineers, after months of systematically analyzing the data, issued a telling and comprehensive report card on the state of our state’s infrastructure.  The result this year is an overall “C” grade—with some areas even lower than that.

Sadly, if the people who donated their time to this important effort had themselves earned such grades in school, it is unlikely that they would ever have become professional engineers.  The grades are that bad.

How did we get in this mess?  There was a time, several decades ago, when the first Governor Brown with bi-partisan legislative and broad public support, provided California with innovative, world-class water and transportation systems.  Sadly, since then California has mostly lived off of that legacy and failed to maintain, expand and improve our infrastructure to keep pace with our rising population and (mostly) growing economy.  Today, bi-partisan consensus has mostly disappeared, the public is much more skeptical of the government’s ability to deliver timely, cost effective projects, and state funding for infrastructure is a substantially smaller percentage of the state budget.

Is it possible to turn things around?  Yes it is.  The situation may look bleak, but it is not hopeless.  Even though our state and local government budgets are strapped as never before, there are practical steps that we as a state can take to improve our now inadequate infrastructure:

  1. Strong public support is vital for any improvements.  Here the remarkable record of the Self-Help Counties (SHCs) demonstrates how that can be achieved.  Time and again SHCs have convinced 2/3 of their local voters to approve half-cent sales tax increases for local transportation projects.  The SHCs do that by specifically telling the voters what projects they will receive and when they will get them.  Then the SHCs actually keep their promises.  If the SHCs did not keep their promises, the voters would not subsequently approve (as they have been doing) the follow-up sales tax extensions.
  2. Unfortunately, Caltrans does not receive at the state level nearly the public support that the SHCs have earned locally.  Any effort to provide new transportation funding at the state level must be tied to major Caltrnas reforms designed to substantially improve the speed and efficiency with which Caltrans delivers projects.  There has been, for example, recent talk in the State Capitol of a one per cent increase in the vehicle license fee with portions of the revenue allocated to Caltrans, local government and transit.  Such a measure would require the approval of 2/3 of the legislature and a majority of the statewide voters.  If this measure does indeed include Caltrans, those approvals will simply not happen without major reforms at Caltrans.
  3. As a corollary to points one and two, California should shift more authority and resources for delivering needed infrastructure from the state to local government.  There is no doubt that:  (a) the voters trust their local governments more than they do the state government to deliver projects quickly and efficiently, and (b) when the voters are convinced that their money will be well spent, they are more willing to approve new taxes and fees for infrastructure.  In the words of the current Governor Brown, it is time to “re-align” the relationship between our state and local governments.
  4. Public-private partnerships (P3s) are now used by many other states and nations to attract valuable private financing for needed public infrastructure projects.  P3 agreements must be carefully constructed to both protect important public interests and draw prudent investors, but it can be done and indeed has been done.  California may have fallen behind this promising trend, but we can catch up.  Indeed, we have the added benefit that we can learn valuable lessons from the experiences of others.
  5. As has been documented many times, California needs to reform its often hostile permitting and litigation environment.  Compared with other states—even states with a strong pro-environment record such as Oregon and Washington—it is generally more time consuming, costly and litigious to successfully sponsor a project in California.  The problem is not just the rules themselves—many of which when viewed on paper and in isolation do not look too unreasonable.  The problem is also that way too often project sponsors are faced with both:  (a) a blizzard of overlapping, conflicting permit requirements adopted by myriad agencies that do not truly communicate with each other let alone coordinate their requirements, and (b) negative, what-is-the-hurry and sometimes hostile attitudes held by those empowered to issue permits.  Project sponsors are simply more likely to find in other states than in California public officials with an attitude of “OK, here are the rules.  Let’s work together and see if there is a way your project can succeed while complying with the rules.”

There is no doubt that improving California’s infrastructure and earning a higher grade on the next report card will be a major challenge.  It will require dramatic progress on many fronts, but it can be done.  Our fine state has a long history of great achievements.  All Californians have or should have an incentive to work together and get it done.  Together let’s create a legacy for which future generations can feel as much appreciation as we feel today for the tremendous achievements of the first Governor Brown and his supporters.

Note:  To see California’s 2012 Infrastructure Report Card go to