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Frank Gruber

Aerial View

By Frank Gruber

I wrote most of this column ten days before you are reading it, and at 37,000 feet. I was flying off for vacation -- what better to time to knock off a column about California, than when the state is the metaphorical rear-view mirror?

The California news of the preceding week when I wrote my first draft was that the budget talks in Sacramento were in crisis. To be honest, I haven't had enough internet time available to me since then to find out if the Democrats and the Republicans in the legislature, and the whatever you want to call him who is governor, reached a compromise.

If they have, no doubt it's a bad one, especially bad for L.A. and the other urban regions of the state.

Meanwhile, not long before I left, the State's Department of Finance released their projection for California's population growth. The Department predicts a population of 60 million by 2050 -- roughly another 23 million.

The population of L.A. County would increase by about three and a half of that, to 13 million, but most of the increase would occur in counties that are relatively uncrowded now -- in the Inland Empire and the Central Valley. The population of Riverside County would triple to 4.7 million.

Just because the Department says so, doesn't mean that an increase of this magnitude will happen, but it's not inconceivable. It is possible that it we don't build for them, they won't come (or, more likely, our children will move elsewhere), but California's population has increased proportionately faster in the past.

Italy, my destination as I write this, has about 60 million people, a similar climate, and only about two-thirds the area of California. If Californians don't want to grow like this, we will have to make decisions just as difficult as those we will have to make to accommodate growth. We are surfing a wave of global development, as the economic axis changes from across the Atlantic to across the Pacific. Our ports handle the largest part of this trade, as L.A. is the great entrepôt of this side of the new New World.

Theoretically, we could turn our collective back on this. Consider the ports. If we don't want to handle the increase in trade, which means vastly expanding our roads, rail and other goods-moving infrastructure, some say the shippers could build a new port in Mexico, with a new railroad to bring the goods to the rest of the U.S. This would be in fact, a good thing -- Mexico needs the jobs and the money that comes with them.

It's such a good idea, that it might make sense for Californians to invest in the port and the railroad. After all, it's probably cheaper to build hundreds of miles of railroad across Mexico than then tens of miles from the ports to the Antelope Valley, an idea under consideration currently. But does anyone expect us to do that?

On the Friday before I left for my trip -- two Fridays ago as you read this -- I attended a Westside Urban Forum breakfast. The topic was funding transportation projects, and the panelists were Pam O'Connor -- a Santa Monica City Council Member but more relevant to the day's topic, the new Chair of the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) -- and Larry Zarian former mayor of Glendale but now the sole representative on the nine-member California Transportation Commission (CTC) from Los Angeles County.

That's right -- of the nine members of the commission that divvies up statewide bond money for transportation, currently only one represents the county with almost one-third of the state's population. (At this point I'd merely like to remind readers that I once ventured that it's time to break California up into four states -- one of which would be L. A. County. (see column)

The lead story in the L.A. Times the morning of the breakfast had been about how the budget negotiations in Sacramento were threatening the funding for crucial transit projects in urban areas -- including the Expo Rail to Santa Monica -- as Republicans in dug in their heels against more spending. Money from the sales tax on gasoline, that was supposed to fund transportation projects, was going to be diverted to other purposes.

It was inconceivable that taxes could be raised for those purposes, even though the public has lately been showing overwhelming support for infrastructure projects of all types.

So at the breakfast it wasn't surprising that the first words that came from the normally ebullient Ms. O'Connor were that she was depressed.

Mr. Zarian described how hard it was to persuade fellow CTC members that projects in already developed and dense Los Angeles County, that might cost hundreds of millions of dollars of state transportation bond money, were more cost-efficient when it came to getting people moving than, for example, twelve million dollar projects in their far-flung parts of the state.

Not to mention that it's those of us in the already developed parts of the state who pay most of the taxes that pay off these bonds.

It's often said, and Mr. Zarian said it at the Westside Urban Forum breakfast, that the need for infrastructure investment is not a Democratic or Republican issue, but rather one that should unite the political parties. There is some truth to that, but the important fact is that when it comes to politics in California, politicians come from one of two different states within the state.

One state is already developed, and the other state is yet to be developed.

The politicians in already-developed -- urban -- California, mostly Democrats, but not all, in general reflect the interests of their constituents who want to invest more to make their lives better. These are the voters in L.A., for example, who approved more than $14 billion in school bonds, and who over the years have regularly voted to tax themselves to build transit. They aren't spendthrifts, but they don't have their heads in the sand, either.

The politicians in not yet developed (or just recently developed) California don't see the same problems. Their constituents don't want to pay more taxes to build better cities and provide better services in them -- especially if they just moved from those cities to new developments.

Instead, their constituents want to be left alone. At least that's what they say, but oddly enough they believe in growth, or at least they believe in the right to make money from real estate, and they want the state to continue to subsidize that growth by paying for more highways, more water projects, and new schools -- for themselves.

Urban Californians are in the majority, but because of how government is set up in California -- not only the two-thirds requirement to pass a budget, but also the powerful and undemocratic commissions that balance regions more than population, and the many encrustations on the State Constitution that enfeeble the legislature -- non-urban Californians have a veto, and they use it to get what they want.

This situation is untenable. Urban California is going to have to figure a way out of this. As I listened to Mr. Zarian explain how hard it was to get needed transportation projects approved by the CTC, it occurred to me that it's useless for urban Californians to vote for more statewide bond issues. I suspect I'm done with that.

It would be better if we voted to tax ourselves countywide or regionally, or even in smaller geographic pieces, for what we need -- not only for the here and now, but also for the future -- and let the undeveloped part of the state pay for its own growth.

I'd rather build the subway to the sea, than pay for more freeways in Riverside. I'd even rather invest in Mexico.

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