When Perception Eclipses Reality: Water Bonds, the High-Speed Rail and LAX Connect

ALPERN AT LARGE-Time is money, and we appear to be running out of both.  It's not the first time that I've (or anyone else has) mentioned this, but it bears repeating.  Unfortunately, the paradigms of "build it already!" versus "money doesn't grow on trees!" keep colliding because they're both true.  Ditto with the paradigms of "look before you leap!" and "he who hesitates is lost!". 

We all agree we need water, we need better transportation, and we need better infrastructure--but it's no secret that prioritization of how soon and how much of our public investment is in quite some dispute.  Take three big examples: 

1) Water:  

California, like it or not, has a water problem that must be addressed, and we have a political problem with both fiscal conservatives (mostly Republicans) wanting $3 billion in dams/reservoirs and environmentalists (mostly Democrats) who want primarily conservation to be our approach to water use--although there is considerable difference between different groups in Sacramento on this issue.

As George Skelton of the Times opines, it's rather complicated, confusing and rather expensive.  The Republican/dam/reservoir approach tends to also want to create tunnels under the Sacramento Delta area, and the expense of the tunnels (up to $15 billion) makes a lot of both liberals and conservatives freak out. 

Governor Brown has proposed a $6 billion bond effort that would create $2 billion in dams/reservoirs and other environmental cleanup efforts.  Something has got to give, and perhaps this is an immediate option for both more water storage during the rainy years and environmental/conservation efforts for the long haul. 

The more one learns about the water issue, though, the more the competing forces create a confusing labyrinth for voters and taxpayers to figure out.  Are Republicans pro-dam/reservoir AND pro-tunnel AND fiscally-conservative?  Do Democrats and environmentalists respect the needs of humans and the need to create an economy an infrastructure that allows for farmers, businesses and people to live? 

But clearly, water is something we need to spend big bucks on, and perhaps both Republicans and Democrats do well to "get real" with the voters, present their case in a much simpler way than they've done in the past, and build what must be built. 

2) The California High-Speed Rail (CAHSR): 

It should be noted that George Skelton and others in the Times have also been tough on Governor Brown on this project, because the expense is crowding out other priorities and souring voters and taxpayers on a lot of other  infrastructure projects deemed more urgent and necessary. 

For example, if the voters could magically move the CAHSR funds to the aforementioned water initiatives, would they?  I doubt I'm going too far on a limb to suggest that they would absolutely do that if they could. 

Ditto with building the Subway, the LAX/Metro Rail project and a host of other freeway and train projects.  Furthermore, with the prioritization of Bay Area voters for electrification of their Caltrain network and the prioritization of Southern California voters for their Metrolink and Amtrak (LOSSAN--Los Angeles to San Diego) commuter trains, the need to connect such distant hubs (LA to SF) with a train is a hard one to prioritize above more local needs. 

Yet it's just not so simple--I'd be the first to say that the $37 billion to $100 billion to $68 billion number changes have been horrible PR for the project, which by itself might be argued is necessary to revisit this CAHSR, but some sort of CAHSR is in order.  While I really don't believe that the LA to SF link is that critical, the Metrolink, Caltrain and Amtrak upgrades and Central CA links (both to the Bay Area and to SoCal) is what this CAHSR really does. 

It's no secret that airlines lose a great deal of money transporting passengers from Fresno, Bakersfield, etc. to the northern and southern economic hubs of the state, a good CAHSR could be used to allow the airlines to team up with the CAHSR Authority to allow a combined train/plane approach to allow all parties to win. 

With new House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) opposing the CAHSR (and most of the rest of the House) and new Democratic State Senate Majority Leader Kevin DeLeon preferring a building of higher speed rail without the Central California connection, Governor Brown (despite his exceptional ability for consensus-building and deal-making) risks alienating the entire political spectrum by placing too many fiscal chips on this one priority. 

Furthermore, the CAHSR has had some horrific PR and dropped a very popular idea of including and linking LAX to Union Station.  Transportation reporter Roger Rudick has noted the LA Times' bias against the CAHSR, but much of the problem stems not from the Times but from the CAHSR Authority itself, which is too insulated and still has yet to make its case to the taxpaying public. 

And as for the argument that we need the CAHSR to create jobs, and of the proclaimed need to create "real jobs" by Republican gubernatorial contender Neel Kashkari, it would be best to avoid either a socialistic "government knows best which type of jobs and how well they should pay" approach AND avoid an "all government is bad" approach. 

It's complicated, and it's still up to the government's leaders to make their case to the voters/taxpayers.  Governor Brown is popular now (and is a favorite to be re-elected), but he won't remain so if he annoys and takes advantage of his constituents. 

3) LAX: 

Breaking news!  Metro Boardmembers Don Knabe, Mike Bonin and Eric Garcetti led a unanimous Metro Board to approve the Alternative A2 Crenshaw/LAX light rail plan to establish an extra 96th/Aviation station and a LAWA-funded People Mover to connect this line to the central airport terminals. 

This creates an east-west link for a north-south line, and which will hopefully allow quick airport access for MetroRail passengers as well as the avoidance of a deviation of the line to the west for those non-airport-bound passengers.  LAWA will pay $1-2 billion for their People Mover, Intermodal Transit Center, LAX Connect (remote check-in) and a host of other transportation improvements. 

This is after decades of study, and will save $1 billion from the original 96th/Airport station that LAWA wanted Metro to build.  Myself and others favored it, but compromise is necessary for both "building it already" and "money doesn't grow on trees".  So we're on our way to a true rail/airport connection, after all. 

Similarly, the thorny issue of the gas tax highway trust fund must also confront issues of raising revenue AND spending smart, and is both convoluted yet necessary to create. 

The reality of all of these issues is so complicated that most taxpayers have the potential to blindly reject all of these ideas...yet if our leaders can make their case (and I think they have at LAX, for one of the greatest needs to make a case for a new infrastructure project), then they will avoid the perception by taxpayers that they are "being had". 

It's called leadership, and we've not had enough of it from either end of the political spectrum for a very long time. 

(Ken Alpern is a Westside Village Zone Director and Board member of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Co-Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee.  He is co-chair of the CD11 Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at " Alpern@MarVista.org This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  .   He also does regular commentary on the Mark Isler Radio Show on AM 870, and co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at www.fogl.us .   The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.)







Vol 12 Issue 52

Pub: June 27, 2014