May 8, 2014 - From the May, 2014 issue

Clinton Global Initiative Comes To Los Angeles—A Commentary: Dear President Clinton & Mayor Garcetti: Can We Make A Deal?

Mark Gold, Associate Director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, recently opined on Former President Bill Clinton’s visit to Los Angeles, during which he co-hosted a workshop with Mayor Eric Garcetti to discuss infrastructure and resiliency in the city. Gold questioned Clinton and Garcetti’s optimism that infrastructure issues can be readily remedied, pointing out financing roadblocks that could stand in the way. TPR has reprinted the piece, originally published by the LA Observed online journal, with permission of the author.


Mark Gold

"Have we ever had a leader with a more contagious can-do attitude than Clinton? But, still, I left wondering whether we can actually get deals done on a large enough scale to tackle the challenges at hand." —Mark Gold

Mark Gold: Last week former President Bill Clinton brought his Clinton Global Initiative to LA for a workshop on “21st Century Infrastructure and Innovation for a Resilient Economy” co-hosted by Mayor Eric Garcetti. The event focused on one of our nation’s most critical needs. And it was marked by tons of enthusiasm.

Have we ever had a leader with a more contagious can-do attitude than Clinton? But, still, I left wondering whether we can actually get deals done on a large enough scale to tackle the challenges at hand.

Here in LA and around the country, we have an infrastructure crisis that has reached critical levels and we aren’t even coming close to addressing the issue realistically. In fact, despite some large California and local government investments in water, schools, wastewater, and transportation, infrastructure investment needs here in LA and statewide are as urgent as anywhere else in the country.

Clinton demonstrated his knack for making even the most intractable problems seem like they are easy to solve. Throughout the day, he repeated the affirmation, “Invest in tomorrow instead of yesterday.” We need to take climate change into account in our infrastructure planning and construction, he said. Perhaps more importantly, every infrastructure improvement should be viewed as an opportunity to provide multiple sustainable benefits to the public.

Garcetti talked about LA’s LED streetlight retrofit program, which has conserved energy, reduced GHG emissions, and decreased light pollution in LA. Garcetti said he wants the streetlights to become solar powered (like those on Sun Valley’s Elmer Avenue, a showcase for green streets), and serve as wi-fi hotspots where feasible. Garcetti also touted the city’s growing green streets program and the multiple benefits provided by the city’s stormwater pollution reduction bond, Proposition O.

Together, Clinton and Garcetti exuded hope that our massive infrastructure problems can be solved and relatively easily. Unfortunately, I don’t share their optimism, as much as I agree strongly with the urgency of finding solutions.

California Treasurer Bill Lockyer and Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers, emphasized that public pension funds are making a difference investing in green infrastructure. This is a great start, but the investments, although big enough to make a difference, aren’t big enough to be transformational. Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta talked glowingly about a successful private-public partnership on the Atlanta BeltLine, an enormous multi-use transportation and park project. And public-private investments in infrastructure can certainly make a difference on individual projects, but they haven’t changed green infrastructure financing in a major way.

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There was a great deal of discussion about the need for a National Infrastructure Bank, a long overdue idea that could lead to a sustainable approach to greater public-private infrastructure investments on a national scale. The workshop also focused on the need for major insurance companies to invest in resilient infrastructure. After all, what industry is more directly affected by extreme weather and earthquake disasters than the insurance industry? “Disaster resiliency is sustainability,” said Lucy Jones, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and an authority on reducing earthquake risks. Jones emphasized that a large quake could take out the LA and California aqueducts, leaving the region without much of its water supply for 12 to 18 months. But large investments in increasing the resiliency of our local water supply have yet to occur.

“Sustainability of the planet is our most critical issue,” Clinton said, “and it is the biggest opportunity we have for economic development.” Yet this appears to be an opportunity that no one is seizing on a large scale.

Garcetti has stated that he wants LA to move to a more self sufficient, integrated water management approach, and he wants 600 megawatts of distributed solar energy in the city.

These are great ideas that are necessary to transform LA into a more sustainable city, but as of now, we still see only traditional financing being proposed for these efforts through government taxes, fee increases, and bonds to pay large scale infrastructure improvements. This is a tall order given the difficulty of overcoming the regulatory barriers of Prop 218, which requires a two-thirds majority vote of the public for many projects and services, and Prop 26, which limits the projects for which governments can raise fees.

I hope that I’m proven wrong and that creative and bold investment strategies will lead to a green infrastructure boom in LA, California, and nationally. But the words of Kasim Reed, the Atlanta mayor--reflecting on the difficulty of attracting infrastructure funding--keep echoing in my head in the aftermath of this high-profile summit, so full of promise: “We just can’t get a deal!”

© 2014 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.