Beware of 'borrow and build'

RICK COLE is the city manager of Ventura. His views are his own.

GOV. ARNOLD Schwarzenegger, armed with a prediction that the population of California will surpass 50 million by 2020, will try out a new message in his State of the State speech this week: infrastructure. But beware, that translates into "reach for your wallets."

"We will need more schools, more energy, more water and more roads, highways, railroads and ports to move our goods around the state and around the world," he announced in a recent preview speech. "Whether it's more money in the state budget or a bond supported by the people, we are going to make it happen."

In an attempt to recover from his recent special election debacle, Schwarzenegger is jettisoning Ronald Reagan's "live within your means" motto and invoking instead Pat Brown's record of "borrowing and building" to accommodate a growing populace.

The magnitude of what he has in mind is stunning. While the Democratic leader of the state Senate is pushing a carefully calibrated $10.3-billion package to meet the state's infrastructure needs, our Republican governor is talking boldly about a $26-billion -- or "much, much larger" -- bond.

But Schwarzenegger's latest bright idea, like his special election initiatives, is deeply flawed. He hasn't taken the time to build a consensus around coherent policies.

Take Schwarzenegger's simplistic call for more roads and highways. Sunne Wright McPeak, his secretary of business, transportation and housing, has warned that throwing billions at expanding the freeway system encourages sprawl and congestion rather than fixing the problem: "As our state continues to grow, we must address the increasing air pollution, traffic congestion and 'dumb-growth pattern' that is hurting our economy and environment." We will be paying off the bonds for 30 years, long after the improvements are overwhelmed by the dumb growth they promote.

The "infrastructure crisis" in California is real. Our transportation system, levees, parks and energy supplies are stretched to the breaking point. But bigger isn't necessarily better -- even if we could afford to pay the staggering costs.

It's vital to focus on a crisis response that gets the most sustainable, logical and long-term return on investment for California, the world's sixth-largest economy.

Should we double-deck freeways at a colossal cost, or is there a way to use the ones we have more efficiently? Do we need "more water" from dams and canals, or can we conserve more effectively? Should we subsidize suburban sprawl by building more highways, or invest in making our older inner cities more competitive?

The governor dismisses such questions when he tells reporters: "Hey, here are the problems that we have, and let's build."

Sure, his pollsters are telling him that people are fed up with traffic and spooked by the flooding unleashed by Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans' vast infrastructure failures. But haven't we had enough of "sound-bite solutions" and half-baked ballot measures?

The threat of mega-bond mania is that the governor and Legislature will skip the hard work of long-term planning, of weighing detailed proposals and analyzing all the costs and benefits, of compromising and building a consensus for the state's future. Instead, they are poised to simply cut a deal on a list of pet projects that appeal directly to special interests. Those interests will be eager to fund a campaign to convince voters that pork means progress. If they win, we lose.

Brown had a guiding vision of California, and he put in place coherent master plans for higher education, transportation and a statewide water system long before he got to the "borrow and build" part. But his enduring legacy is not the list of projects he completed. It's the courage of the leadership he exerted. As he said then: "We are here today to bear a lantern for the future, not carry a torch for the past."

If Schwarzenegger needs inspiration for his State of the State address, he should look beyond "borrow and build" and ask what a visionary like Brown would do if he were alive today. That would surely lead him to seek the strategic solution, not the quick fix.

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