No roads to recovery in sight

With California teetering on insolvency, government union activists and liberal legislators are trying to whip the public into a “please tax us more” frenzy by scaring people about the consequences of spending cuts. At a union rally in Sacramento recently, one protester hoisted a “Raise Our Taxes” sign, which typifies the sentiment widely held among the state’s public employees.

Spare me the melodrama and poor-mouthing about fewer services. In reality, California’s government – through its regulatory climate and bureaucratic turf-building – has created a system that squelches the efficient provision of public services. Today’s column focuses on infrastructure, because even conservative voters are tempted to go soft on infrastructure-related bonds and tax hikes, given the day-to-day discomfort of traffic congestion. Before you start thinking that there’s no other solution than raising taxes, I offer two striking examples of how infrastructure is provided today – and no amount of new taxes will solve this dysfunction.

The first example involves the 20-year (so far) process of extending the 241 Toll Road from Rancho Santa Margarita in South Orange County to Interstate 5 near Camp Pendleton – a vital, mostly privately funded freeway project that has been repeatedly squelched by state and federal officials at the urging of environmental and no-growth activists. The second example focuses on the California Department of Transportation, the subject of a new report by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office. The LAO finds that Caltrans is far overstaffed and wasteful, which reduces the effectiveness of its infrastructure-building efforts.

The quasi-private Transportation Corridor Agencies, which runs the toll roads in Orange County, just released a new proposed route to complete the 16-mile 241 Toll Road. Currently, there’s only one main route along the South County coast, Interstate 5, and it’s routinely a nightmare. I’ll never forget the time it took me nine hours to drive from Diamond Bar to the Mexican border, and that was on a Saturday.

As TCA points out, traffic projections see a 60-percent increase in traffic along the I-5 in South Orange County by midcentury, basically a future of gridlock if something is not done soon.

The previous proposed route for the 241 extension prompted a heated backlash from environmentalists, presumably because the route went through a sliver of the San Onofre State Beach – a portion of the park inland from the I-5 and quite far from the beach. The anti-growth California Coastal Commission rejected that plan and the federal Commerce Department – which could have intervened under the pretext of national security concerns – also rejected the proposal. The only alternative to this new route for increasing traffic capacity is a widening of I-5, which could lead to massive condemnations of private property along its flanks.

But now the 241 plan is back. TCA officials have moved the alignment slightly onto Camp Pendleton. On Feb. 22, the secretary of the Navy, who has authority over this issue, sent a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., complaining that the “new TCA route would unacceptably impact the Marine Corps’ ability to train and prepare for all contingency operations.”

TCA is now pursuing a dialogue with the Navy to try to address these specific training and engineering concerns. Meanwhile, the environmentalists and no-growthers – who no doubt would oppose any route, any time and anywhere – are now gearing up to fight this new alignment. And there’s little chance the Coastal Commission will have a change of heart. So we’re looking at a long and costly battle to build a road that’s something of a no-brainer.

TCA Chairman Peter Herzog, mayor of Lake Forest, told me the agency is pleased that it finally got a response from the Navy. Now TCA officials at least know what the problems are and were trying – so far to no avail – to meet with military officials to determine if the sticking points are resolvable. Herzog pointed to the need for redundancy in the road system given that any problem (such as wildfires or a major accident) clogs up I-5 for hours.

This is a public-private partnership, with TCA having turned over $3 billion in infrastructure to a state government that had been reluctant to build the roads to meet a growing population. It doesn’t get any better than this for taxpayers. Yet our government has largely been hostile to the plan even though the feds have ruled that even the past proposed alignment would in no way jeopardize the wildlife habitats in the region.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” Herzog said. “Our bonds go to 2040. We’re not going away.” Yet I’m left wondering why taxpayers are being asked to pay more to deal with a state budget crisis so that we don’t lose crucial infrastructure funding, yet here’s a great infrastructure project that could be funded on the cheap and the developers get nothing but hassles and delays.

Now up to Sacramento, where the LAO suggested that Caltrans’ capital program’s staffing should be reduced by 1,500 and budget slashed by $200 million because it doesn’t have a workload to sustain it. The LAO argues that “there appears to be little relationship between the number of positions in a region and the size of its capital program.” Most strikingly, the LAO argues that furloughs appear to have had “no identifiable impact on its productivity.” I hear anecdotal stories of Caltrans workers with virtually nothing to do.

“Finally, the LAO has addressed the elephant in the room,” said Tom Blackburn, president of the American Council of Engineering Companies California, which advocates the outsourcing of Caltrans engineering work to private firms. “Too much money goes into [public employee] benefits rather than box culverts, pensions rather than projects and salaries rather than streets.”

How about this modest proposal: Why not approve good infrastructure projects and clean up the wasteful Caltrans bureaucracy before asking taxpayers for more money to pay for new roads and bridges?

Steven Greenhut is director of the Pacific Research Institute’s ( journalism center.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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