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THE STATE

Taking the Insanity Out of Public-Works Planning

May 28, 2000|Jock O'Connell and James R. King | Jock O'Connell, an international business consultant, is a former analyst for the California Commission for Economic Development. James R. King is president of a consulting firm

SACRAMENTO — Whether commuters snared in traffic, farmers worried about water supplies, exporters fretting over shipping delays at congested ports or parents distressed by the rundown school buildings, Californians daily endure problems that are direct results of decades of neglect of the state's infrastructure.

Everyone agrees the situation must be remedied before population growth completely overwhelms existing facilities, and economic expansion stalls. Why, then, do most efforts to address the problem seem as effective as pushing a rope?

With the cost of fixing up the state's transportation networks alone approaching 12 figures, funding is widely regarded as the primary sticking point. But so what? When money is short, businesses, as well as households, respond by adopting a budget. Not California, though. Despite its pretense of being one of the world's largest economies, the state does not have an infrastructure budget or even a method for defining and managing its public-works agenda.

Given the stakes, one might expect that such an egregious lapse in public administration would have been redressed. Not so. Because so much public largess is up for grabs, impartial assessments of infrastructure priorities have historically given way to the exigencies of old-fashioned pork-barrel politics, in which such things as technical expertise, hard data and sound planning are commonly regarded as inconveniences.

Fortunately, elected officials and civic leaders occasionally experience an epiphanies. So it was when Gov. Gray Davis named 48 prominent citizens to a Commission on Building for the 21st Century in January 1999. Charged with devising recommendations for improving the way the state handles its public-works requirements, the panel is due to issue a report by December. Not content to await a commission's judgments, state Treasurer Phil Angelides jumped into the debate last June when he issued his "smart investments" manifesto setting out a number of inventive ways of better utilizing scarce infrastructure funds.

Although the governor's commission and the treasurer's proposals have garnered most of the extremely limited attention infrastructure planning normally receives, a much less conspicuous step toward infrastructure-planning reform may hold the greatest promise.

Last year, Assemblyman Robert M. Hertzberg (D-L.A.), now the Assembly speaker, authored legislation requiring California state government to adopt, for the first time, a five-year plan for coordinating the capital-investment agendas of government agencies, most notably big spenders like CalTrans and General Services.

The California Infrastructure Plan (CIP) is a decided improvement over the wildly disjointed method by which billions of dollars in capital-investment decisions have customarily been formulated by state government agencies. But, in its current shape, the CIP still will not provide what California really needs: a comprehensive system for defining how best to spend limited public-works dollars. That's because only a portion of California's public-works burden is directly borne by state agencies. The rest is assumed by cities, counties, public utilities and countless special districts that have traditionally been loathe to coordinate their capital-spending programs with neighboring communities, let alone with state officials.

To be sure, infrastructure-spending decisions are today less a triumph of incrementalism than was the case a few years ago. Most local officials realize that rivalries among adjacent communities, which easily lead to beggar-thy-neighbor economic-development strategies, can no longer be tolerated in a state where population growth and a burgeoning economy have made most civic boundaries artificial. Especially in the field of transportation, more and more planning is regional. Still, there is no reason why California should not adopt a more formal infrastructure-planning process that encompasses both the state government's capital-expenditure plans and the infrastructure-development agendas of local and regional agencies.

The aim of this enhanced planning would not be to subject individual regional plans to state government approval or to compel state officials to slavishly embrace regional priorities. Rather, it would be to ensure that decision-makers at all levels are collaborating, working off the same page with greater knowledge of what others are doing, sharing information and insights, and gaining access to the most sophisticated and innovative solutions available.

Instituting such a planning mechanism would not necessitate creation of a new government agency or even a new layer of bureaucracy. Instead, the CIP could be transformed into an instrument for analyzing California's overall public-works needs and setting its infrastructure-spending priorities. To do so, the law would have to be amended to require that the CIP explicitly seek to mesh the capital-investment plans of state government agencies with the regional capital-investment plans drawn up by city and county governments, special districts, school boards, air and sea ports, and both public and private utilities in each of the state's distinctive regions. By affording a nonconstraining focal point for public-works planning, the CIP could provide a much improved system for guaranteeing that funds are spent more efficiently and effectively on providing California with an infrastructure fit for the 21st century.

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