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Op-Ed

Newton: Getting L.A. growing again

A wide range of influential Californians, despite their range of vantage points and political leanings, identified many of the same opportunities for growth.

July 23, 2012|Jim Newton
  • Putting Californians to work is a lot easier to talk about than it is to do. Government budgets at all levels are tight, so any thought of launching large-scale public works projects runs up against depleted revenue.
Putting Californians to work is a lot easier to talk about than it is to do.… (Pete Tong / Tribune Media…)

There is no more consistent refrain among elected officials and candidates these days than that they will do everything they can to create jobs. It's a worthy goal given the sluggish state of the economy, and it's particularly crucial in California, which has the third-highest unemployment rate in the nation (behind Nevada and Rhode Island).

But putting people to work is a lot easier to talk about than it is to do. Government budgets at all levels are tight, so any thought of launching large-scale public works projects runs up against depleted revenue; there are no Hoover Dams in the works. Politicians bicker over which ideas are most worthy. Neighborhoods resist projects that would be good for the region but impose a burden on specific communities.

Does that mean that Los Angeles, which has lost about 30,000 jobs since 1995, is destined to continue shedding them? Or are there tools the government could use to spur local job growth quickly without deepening the shortfalls of the city, county or state governments?

Those were the questions I posed to a wide range of influential Californians in recent days. They included business leaders — Russell Goldsmith, chairman of City National Bank, and AEG President Tim Leiweke. There were current and former public officials — Los Angeles Councilman Eric Garcetti, L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan. And there were passionate advocates on opposite sides of big issues — Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Assn., and Maria Elena Durazo, secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

Naturally, these people disagreed on plenty. But what was most striking is that, despite their range of vantage points and political leanings, they identified many of the same opportunities for growth. From them emerged a coherent and workable plan for putting people in this area back to work, sooner rather than later. Here are some of their ideas:

Accelerate local rail projects

Many of those I talked to, including Durazo and Goldsmith, applauded the transportation bill that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recently helped push through Congress. Goldsmith, who chairs the Los Angeles Coalition for the Economy and Jobs, noted that construction of some of the projects could begin almost immediately and could provide a significant infusion of jobs, both in construction and in long-term employment created by new economic activity.

"We're seeing progress like we rarely see in this city," Goldsmith said of the opportunities created by the transportation bill. And though accelerating the region's ambitious set of transportation projects to complete them in a decade will require voter approval to extend an existing half-cent sales tax, Goldsmith and others said the combination of federal support and local funding offers the chance to significantly increase employment. (The coalition's report on jobs is available at http://www.thelacoalition.com/site/resources.php).

Ridley-Thomas highlighted transportation as the most important infrastructure undertaking of local governments, noting that it can provide both traffic relief and opportunities to put people to work.

Expand the airport and port

No single project attracted broader and more enthusiastic support from those I spoke to than revitalizing LAX, which would both create immediate construction jobs and help local industries and businesses over the long run. Step one would be to move the north runway, which would enhance safety, make room for larger planes and clear the way for renovation of more terminals. An airport that Schatz described hyperbolically as "Third World" could be transformed into something that presents tourists with an inviting first look at Los Angeles. Leiweke in particular emphasized the importance of that project, which he said should anchor a broader regional commitment to expanding L.A.'s tourism and convention business. Durazo, who disagrees with Schatz about most things, agrees with her on this.

The port also brims with opportunities for job-producing expansion. A proposed rail loading yard near the port has hung in limbo for more than seven years, in part because of Villaraigosa's unwillingness to take a firm stand. Approving it would create construction jobs right away and, by speeding commerce through the port, exponentially add to the workforce in Southern California. All this one takes is a yes from the mayor and a willingness to overrule the objections of a few neighbors and some misguided environmental objections.

Change laws that depress job creation

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