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We Need a Vision

Twenty years ago the United States threw massive amounts of money and manpower at Vietnam without having a clear goal of what the nation wanted to achieve in Southeast Asia. Today the state of California is in danger of doing the same thing with transportation.

Dealing with growth is the state’s most complex and perplexing problem. But California will forfeit the best opportunity of managing its future if the state pours new billions into more freeways without a clear idea of where it wants to go. This reality is beginning to strike close to the office of Gov. George Deukmejian, and there are hopeful signs that it is penetrating the inner sanctum of the governor’s office.

In a breakfast interview with The Times’ Sacramento bureau the other day, state Transportation Director Robert K. Best acknowledged: “We don’t have a clear vision about how to deal with transportation.”

The state now spends about $1.5 billion a year on transportation, without a real transportation plan. What passes for a plan now is the state Transportation Commission’s five-year state Transportation Improvement Program, which essentially is a wish list of individual projects stapled together by local governments with little assurance that any one project will connect with any other. Best is absolutely correct when he says that California must turn this process on its ear by asking first this question: “What is it that we think we ought to be trying to achieve?”

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Last year Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin (D-Union City) sought a modest first step in achieving what Best says should be done. She sponsored a bill to create a 22-member Blue-Ribbon Transportation Commission to assess California’s highway and transit needs between now and the year 2010. The commission, on an advisory basis only, was to develop a transportation strategy and study ways to finance it. The bill passed both the Assembly and the Senate only to be vetoed by the governor. As for financing, Deukmejian has indicated a willingness to consider a gasoline-tax increase, whereas last year he insisted that additional highway funding come from a bond issue. But Deukmejian’s bond proposal was defeated at the polls. Competing gasoline-tax measures have been introduced in both the Senate and the Assembly, and the governor has summoned a transportation finance summit meeting in Sacramento on Feb. 8. Deukmejian invited 27 representatives of all segments of the transportation industry to participate. Presumably, some compromise gasoline-tax plan will emerge this summer, either with or without a statewide vote in the June, 1990, primary election.

But just as important is that the state begin a process that attempts to envision what patterns growth will take in the next 20 or 30 years and how that growth can be affected or channeled through development of a transportation system.

Someone needs to devise the sort of long-range strategy envisioned by Eastin’s legislation of last year. Which areas might better be served by light rail lines or commuter railroads? In what areas might transportation planning be used as a tool to discourage development because of environmental and other considerations? Factored into this thinking should be ideas like Deukmejian’s suggestion that truck traffic be restricted during rush hours, enhanced car-pooling, altered work hours, and working at home on some days by means of computers.

There are reports that Best is about to take on such an effort in his own office in conjunction with the state’s regional planning agencies like the Southern California Assn. of Governments. If so, and if it has the support of the governor, this effort has a potential of being one of the most important initiatives to emerge from the Deukmejian Administration. California might yet have hopes of salvaging a future in which it is possible to get from here to there--and on time.

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