Any serious student of California knows that the state’s emergence in the past century reflected a triumph of engineering. From the water systems, the dredged harbors, the power stations and the freeway system, California overcame geographical limits of water, power and its often-unmanageable coastline to create a beacon of growth and opportunity.
That was then, but certainly not the case today. Indeed, since the halcyon postwar days of infrastructure-building under Gov. Pat Brown, roughly one-in-five dollars of state spending went to building roads, bridges, water systems and the like. Today, this investment amounts to less than 5 percent.
As a result, California, once the exemplar of modernity, has among the worst road conditions in the nation, a tenuous, but still extraordinarily expensive, energy grid, as well as an increasingly uncompetitive port structure. Thinking itself a youthful magnet for building entrepreneurs of all kinds – creators of new communities, manufacturing and logistics industries – California is increasingly viewed by other places, both in the country and abroad, as an ideal place to hunt for skilled people, expanding industries and investment capital.
Why has this happened? To some extent, the shift away from infrastructure has a generational twist, reflected, for example, in the differences between Pat Brown and his son, Jerry, who, upon first taking office, in 1975, as recalled by a longtime adviser, Tom Quinn, expressed distaste for his father’s “build, build, build” thing.
This reaction was not totally illogical. Anyone who has lived here for decades naturally recoils from some of the consequences wrought by large-scale construction upon formerly bucolic areas, turning some of them into unsightly, often dysfunctional, messes.
Under any circumstances, Pat Brown-level infrastructure building is probably beyond the financial means of the state. At the same time, California’s modest population growth – in contrast with the huge increases of the Pat Brown era – means arguably less demand for new building projects.
Right now, the only dynamic growth sector of the state economy – social media and software – relies far less on traditional infrastructure than do older industries. Unwilling to pay California’s high costs for energy, water and other things, these tech firms tend to place their industrial projects, as well as their computer servers, in lower-cost regions, often states that tend to be more pro-active in their infrastructure investments.
Yet just because California can’t finance a second huge building program, there’s little question that new and effective investment in roads, pipelines, bridges and ports is desperately needed. Much of this work may be in retrofitting older infrastructure. The recent flooding on and around the UCLA campus from a broken Los Angeles city water main and frequent smaller water main breaks in Southern California are just one indicator that we no longer keep up even with very basic public needs. As the California League of Cities recently observed, the state’s “infrastructure is rapidly deteriorating. Quite simply, California is crumbling.”
The League of Cities suggested the state needs to spend some $500 billion over 20 years to maintain its economic competitiveness. But right now there’s little reason to think the current administration and bureaucracy is capable of spending money wisely. The recently completed $6.5 billion eastern span of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, built largely of steel imported from China, is widely suspected of being poorly constructed, and, according to one engineering expert, may need repairs well before its time. There appears to have been systematic “disregard for welding procedure,” with cracks already appearing on the bridge.
The fact that the state allowed such shoddy work, at taxpayer expense, should be a warning that other state projects might be facing similar issues. Indeed, one can already see, as professor and author Walter Russell Mead has suggested, a similar pattern of disappointment even in the initial phases of Gov. Jerry Brown’s high-speed rail project, with rising cost estimates as well as diminished projections of the train’s speed.
Ultimately, this boils down to a question of priorities. A state that can’t correctly maintain its existing pipelines and bridges is probably not a good candidate for bold new infrastructure adventures. This is not merely a conservative view, but one held by many liberals. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has suggested that the money poured into high-speed rail may be better spent on “other, more-pressing infrastructure needs.”
Similar criticism has come from progressive journalist Kevin Drum of Mother Jones magazine,who called projections for the bullet train’s ridership and cost – now pegged at close to $100 billion, almost twice the original projection – “jaw-droppingly shameless,” an appropriate characterization based upon the method and documentation. He suggests that a “high school sophomore who turned in work like this would get an F.” Spending for Gov. Brown’s signature project grows exponentially, even as basic needs are ignored.
This spending on the nice, as opposed to the necessary, extends down to the local level, where infrastructure already often comes in second to ever-expanding public worker pensions. Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti is totally committed to spending more on expensive mass transit and housing densification, which itself strains infrastructure built for much lower density.
And, this priority persists even though we have particularly tepid population growth in Los Angeles and have seen very little increase the past 30 years in the percentage of people taking public transit to work. The insistence on building expensive light rail, instead of far-less-expensive bus-based systems, effectively chokes off funds for improving the day-to-day lives of most Angelenos.
Although there’s little hope we can go back to the era of massive building during the Pat Brown years, we could certainly get a lot smarter about how we can rebuild the state and return to sustained, widespread growth. The water crisis, which has plagued the state repeatedly over generations, would have been less severe had we built more storage facilities during the wet years, notes economist Bill Watkins, and improved our ability to move water across the state. Yet, as Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Waltershas pointed out, the environmentalists who suggest California may experience long-term drought conditions due to climate change have also opposed such practical steps to cope with the problem.
Much of this reflects the economic unreality of California politics. We neglect roads, bridges, ports and economic energy projects because, in many ways, these are not a priority of the green lobby, which prefers less growth, more density and a shift from cars to transit. So, instead, we get money spent on high-speed rail and ultracostly, environmentally damaging solar panel farms or inefficient wind turbines erected in the middle of the desert.
These energy costs hit hardest the state’s interior and heavily Hispanic working class but this doesn’t seem to much bother the state political leaders, who come overwhelmingly from the affluent parts of the Bay Area and coastal Southern California.
So in the name of trying to appear “visionary,” as Brown, Garcetti and their minions portray themselves, in the real world, our state falls ever further behind competitors, many of whom are rapidly improving their infrastructure – everything from roads and ports to parks.
We collectively may no longer be the vibrant young adult of the Pat Brown years a half-century ago, but there’s no reason for us to enter advancing middle age with politically induced decrepitude. It’s a disservice to the people who endure high taxes and relentless regulation with little benefit to their day-to-day lives.
Cross-posted in New Geography.