How to Fix California’s Infrastructure Crisis


How to Fix California’s Infrastructure Crisis

More efficiency, better prioritization of projects, and public-private partnerships can help

Gov. Jerry Brown recently unveiled his latest budget proposal and noted that California must “deal with longstanding infrastructure challenges.” He’s right. California’s infrastructure is a mess.

The state has $59 billion in needed road and bridge repairs that the governor didn’t find funding for. Plus, we’ve seen a drought exacerbated by inadequate state water reservoirs.

And devastating water main breaks in Los Angeles and San Diego in recent years illustrated what can happen when we don’t maintain or build infrastructure.

Long-term economic and job growth, not to mention everyday quality of life for Californians, depends on good infrastructure. But infrastructure takes long-term thinking and planning, a resource that is very scarce in Sacramento these days. Things have to change, and here are a few ideas for where to start:

First, California needs to get far more bang for the bucks already being spent. Texas spends about one-fourth as much as California per mile of highway, but Texas’ highways are the 11th best in America, while California’s state highways rank 45th in the latest Annual Highway Report.

One excuse you’ll frequently hear from Sacramento: everything, including infrastructure projects, costs more in California. And that’s true, to an extent. But administration and overhead consumes huge percentages of every project’s budget.

For every mile of highway it has, Texas spends $3,800 on administrative costs. California spends over $47,000 on administrative costs for every mile of highway it has. It shouldn’t be 12 times more expensive in California than it is Texas.

Compounding the problem of getting little bang for the buck in infrastructure projects is the state’s lousy system of prioritizing projects. Given limited resources, it is vital to steer money to the projects that are the most important and will provide the greatest public benefit. Instead, California just broke ground on a bullet train optimistically estimated to cost $68 billion.

Why build a train in the Central Valley when you have a $59 billion backlog of road and highway repairs and levees that are crumbling, threatening the agriculture industry that generates 15 percent of the state economy? In Sacramento, the “bold vision” of a bullet train trumps muddy old maintenance in the Delta every time. The state needs to adopt a capital budget that evaluates and ranks infrastructure projects across all sectors and directs resources to the most important.

Gov. Brown’s failure to prioritize infrastructure wasn’t lost on the media when he released his budget. “I have a team working on infrastructure,” Gov. Brown told Southern California Public Radio, “and we’re going to start engaging the constituency groups, including Republican leaders, and we’re going to try to find what avenues of funding might be available.”

If that’s the case, Brown should look to states like Texas, Florida and Virginia, which have gotten billions in private capital to pay for massive new infrastructure projects through the use of public-private partnerships. Companies would be thrilled to build airports, bridges and roads in California.

Public-private partnerships can help states get the infrastructure they need without the tax increases and borrowing that California has increasingly relied upon.

We know how to properly structure and manage public-private partnerships to protect the taxpayers and ensure accountability. And California clearly has more infrastructure needs than taxpayer dollars can ever fund.

These three big changes in how the state approaches infrastructure – more efficiency, better prioritization of projects and public-private partnerships – could go a long way in stopping California’s infrastructure crisis.

If we want people to be able to get to work, want goods to move in and out of the state and water and energy to flow where it’s needed, the infrastructure has to be there. Sadly, Gov. Brown is failing on this front.

Adrian Moore is vice president of Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register.