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A Bumpy Ride: The Governor’s Infrastructure Plan Faces Many Pitfalls

By Mark Baldassare, research director, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune on February 8, 2006

In his mission to improve California since the recall, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's focus on the “three Rs” – recover, reform, rebuild – has had mixed results. His “recovery” efforts went well: The state now has a budget surplus and solid job growth. However, his four “reform” initiatives were all defeated in the special election. Approaching his November re-election bid, he has now unveiled a “rebuilding” proposal, with a $222 billion price tag over 10 years, for infrastructure projects including transportation, school facilities, water and flood control, prisons and jails and courts.

This proposal will now have to pass muster with two-thirds of the Legislature and a majority of the voters.

As the legislative leadership breaks into working groups to craft their responses, and as the public absorbs the details of his specific plans, there are many signs that reaching an accord on a state infrastructure plan is no easy task.

On the one hand, Californians seem ready to support infrastructure spending. For decades, the state has under-invested in key sectors of public works projects while the population has soared. The Public Policy Institute of California's “California 2025” report points out that an expected increase from 37 million to 45 million residents in the next 20 years will put even more pressures on roads and infrastructure in the crowded coastal regions and fast-growing inland areas.

In our PPIC Surveys, Californians – including San Diegans – say that traffic congestion is a big problem today, and serves as a constant reminder that current plans are inadequate. Six in 10 voters say the state government should be spending more on roads and infrastructure.

Also, two in three Californians approve of the basic outline of the governor's infrastructure plans; and a solid majority say they would vote yes on a $25 billion state infrastructure bond the governor has proposed for the June ballot. Not only that, there is majority support for his proposal across party lines and regions. The governor's approval rating jumped from 38 percent to 45 percent among those more likely to vote – coincidental with announcing his intent to spend more on infrastructure.

Nevertheless, there are many reasons why a state infrastructure plan faces an uphill battle. For one, our polling indicates that although most Californians have heard of “infrastructure,” only one in four say they know a lot about it. For another, opinions are divided about what type of infrastructure should have the highest funding priority. Nearly half name school facilities (but only about 30 percent of the governor's proposal would go there). About one in four say surface transportation, one in six name water systems and flood controls, and other infrastructure projects are far behind.

Concerning transportation, which, at $107 billion, is the biggest item in the governor's infrastructure plan, there is no consensus on the types of projects that should have the highest priority. Fewer than four in 10 residents name freeways and highways – a major emphasis of the Schwarzenegger proposal. Three in 10 say the top priority ought to be public bus and transit systems, while others mention local streets and roads, car pool lanes, and other projects. Moreover, there are significant regional differences: Public transit spending is favored more in the San Francisco Bay Area, while freeways and highways top the funding priority list in Southern California.

There is also major public disagreement about how to fund these new road and infrastructure projects. Voters favor the use of surplus budget funds over the governor's idea of issuing new bonds for infrastructure. Only one in six support the governor's proposal to pay for some infrastructure through increased user fees, and even fewer favor tax increases. Thus, there are serious questions about how to sustain an adequate level of new funding for the public works projects being proposed.

Many other thorny issues also need to be addressed. For instance, this new state-level proposal will have to be integrated into existing regional plans under way in San Diego and elsewhere, which use sales tax dollars approved by local voters. Some planners may want the new infrastructure money tied to adopting “smart growth” principles that discourage sprawl and encourage high density. Some lawmakers may insist that public works projects include housing and parks. Others will ask for inclusion of state and local reforms, such as lowering the two-thirds threshold for passing a local transportation sales tax, easing restrictions on environmental reviews for public works projects, or allowing more public-private partnerships in major infrastructure projects.

Reaching agreement among all of the interested parties may take us well beyond the governor's deadline for a June bond measure. An important lesson learned from the measures that passed during the “year of recovery” and those that failed in the “year of reform” was that Californians want to be sure their leaders are all on the same page before asking voters to head to the polls. Ultimately, the voters will have the final say on the outcome of this proposal. That is why taking the time to have an inclusive discussion that results in an infrastructure plan with broad support is so critical to the state's future.


California 2025: Taking on the Future

PPIC Statewide Survey: Special Survey on the California State Budget, January 2006

PPIC Statewide Survey: Special Survey on Californians and the Initiative Process, October 2005