Twists and turns on the path to rebuild infrastructure

When it comes to fixing California’s crumbling, pothole-infested roads, fasten your seatbelts – it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Much of the public’s attention on transportation funding is fixed on the $98.5 billion high-speed rail project.  Understandably so: The proposed bullet train is a compelling topic and a flashpoint for controversy.

But far more important in its day-to-day impact on Californians is a report released by the California Transportation Commission (CTC), the state’s official body that identifies needed road projects, including maintenance and improvement. The study identifies billions of dollars of needed work, and notes that the state’s once-vaunted road system is the second-worst in the nation.

The CTC reported recently that the state’s entire transportation system needs a comprehensive once-over.  

Some of the other existing infrastructure challenges the state is facing include more stringent vehicle emission requirements, steady increases in fuel costs, traffic congestion and growing parking limitations, just to name a few.  The report notes that competition from other modes of transportation, such as bicycling and pedestrian systems, are also on the rise. But the CTC’s steadfast priority remains that it’s “the long-term stability of highway and transit funding” that needs further analysis.  

In contrast to the negatives of bad roads, the image presented by the High-Speed Rail Authority’s 2012 business plan projects up to 100,000 new jobs for Californians within the next five years. Employment opportunities include project engineers, rail construction and environmental testing, as well as a growing need for regional mass transit and city liaisons.
Over the course of the project, HSR has estimated that a million new positions could be developed, detailing the willingness of existing transportation resources in such cities as San Francisco and Los Angeles.

In a follow-up report, HSRA agreed to protect the alliance of small businesses adjacent to the rail construction in an attempt to further stimulate economic growth throughout the state.  Groups such as the California Alliance for Jobs (CAJ) support such policy implementations, as it promises new growth in many different fields of expertise, as well as a new outlook on California’s future.  

But while the projected numbers from HSRA appear to provide at least some relief towards a slow but potentially steady economic recovery, what do these figures mean when compared against a crumbling infrastructure that already serves as California’s transportation priority?

According to the American Civil Society of Engineers, roads and other critical, crumbling infrastructure aren’t going to be fixed anytime soon.  

In 2009, the ACSE reported that California’s current standards of infrastructure received an overall grade of C-.  Included in the report is an analysis of resources that are in need of critical repair, such as aviation (C-), urban runoff (D+), transportation (D+) and levee/flood protection (F). The ACSE listed that a remarkably high number of California’s roads, dams and drinking water resources are already on the brink of structural emergency status.

The report concluded that an Annual Investment Need of $37 billion, or roughly one-third of HSR’s estimated project completion figures, would be required to bring California’s existing infrastructure up to a passable average.

Sacramento State University Professor Mary Kirlin, a public policy expert, has served as a principal consultant for transportation issues to the state Legislature and is the author of “CALIFORNIA 2000, Getting on the Right Track: The Passenger Rail Alternative.”

Kirlin says that the newest developments proposed by the HSRA are just part of the discussion that California has been having about implementing mass transit for well over 20 years.

“It’s a question of timing,” says Dr. Kirlin. “Our Western development, particularly in California, isn’t built to efficiently utilize mass transit systems.  Cities such as San Francisco or Washington, D.C., have rail systems but obviously on a smaller scale, but they require subsidies and are already barely meeting their overall spending costs.”

The high-speed rail program’s potential for financing depends in large measure on public support. Kirlin notes that HSRA must garner more public backing, actively work towards better connections among more densely populated areas and decide whether there is enough ridership to return some of the deepening costs.

“When you’re looking at numbers like this, you’re spending money that’s already been dedicated within the state to ongoing costs, other debt obligations and other infrastructure needs,” says Dr. Kirlin. “People should be scratching their heads and asking themselves, ‘Where is this money going to come from?”

One critical infrastructure need stems from financial cutbacks to CalTrans, which currently oversees the development, construction and maintenance of over 15,000 miles of interstate freeways and State Routes, as well as 146,000 miles of public streets.  

The 2010-11 Caltrans Fiscal Report released last month shows that $4.6 billion funded 697 projects statewide. Despite these the ACSE has already suggested that California’s roads are among the worst in the country.

“There’s always room for potential employment opportunities, but you need tangible results in order to compel that conversation,” Kirlin said. “In that regard, not much has changed.  Right now, critical funds from other transportation, educational and other government resources are being depleted.  Developments like High-Speed Rail only take further from these agencies.”

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