April 25, 2001 - From the April, 2001 issue

Steven Erie Offers Insights & Assessment of San Diego's Regional Governance Experiment

As San Diego elected its new Mayor, one thing was very clear: if the San Diego region—along with much of the rest of the State—does not make infrastructure its top priority, dehabilitating congestion is sure to plague a rapidly growing population in the very near future. MIR was pleased to speak recently with UCSD Professor Steven P. Erie about these challenges, and what the San Diego region is doing to encourage collaboration between the City and the various agencies controlling the regional infrastructure systems.


Steven Erie

Steve, in sharing your valuable perspective on San Diego and its infrastructure challenges as it grapples with growth, let's begin with San Diego's recent Mayoral election. What does Mayor Murphy's election say about your City's new priorities?

Mayor Dick Murphy's election signals that infrastructure will be a much higher priority than it's been in the past. In his State of the City address, Murphy placed infrastructure projects at the top of the list. For example, as part of San Diego's regional governance initiative, the Mayor sees a new airport authority as absolutely critical. Another important issue is establishing energy independence, including a possible municipal power utility for San Diego-and this from a Republican mayor!

Historically, San Diego-a sleepy Navy town until about 10 or 15 years ago-has been an infrastructure underachiever. Along with the rest of Southern California, it has been able to rely upon the Los Angeles port, airport and water systems. But growth projections suggest this relationship is no longer viable. Over the next 20 years, San Diego is expecting to add one million people to its current 2.8 million, and in many ways its infrastructure is already severely challenged.

How is the new Mayor taking on this challenge-not only proclaiming infrastructure as high on his agenda, but actually introducing it to the institutions that will effectuate the planning, financing and construction of any policy changes?

Unfortunately, San Diego's Mayor is institutionally weak. Unlike his Los Angeles counterpart, he doesn't directly control the water, power, airport or harbor facilities; in San Diego, they're either managed by special districts or private utilities. Adding to Murphy's difficulties, San Diego has a suburban style Council Manager system of government with limited mayoral powers. When we adopted that system back in the 30s, we were a city of 150,000. Thus far, despite numerous proposals for a strong Mayor system, we've chosen not to change the system.

So far, Mayor Murphy's most effective power has been the bully pulpit. In San Diego's fragmented and weak governance system, the Mayor realizes that he needs to collaborate with the Port District, SANDAG, the transportation planning agencies, and those looking for a new airport site, those seeking to establish energy independence, etc. to improve the region's infrastructure. Hopefully, RGEC-a seven-month reform effort to determine what kind of regional governance structure we want for infrastructure-will succeed in putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Elaborate, if you would, Steve. Much attention statewide has been given to RITA, the Regional Infrastructure and Transportation Agency, which has now evolved into RGEC, the Regional Government Efficiency Commission. What's the status of San Diego's regional reform efforts?

RITA-Senator Peace's brainchild-was to be a State mandated top-down consolidation of seven infrastructure and transportation agencies, while RGEC is a bottom-up planning process that requires voter approval. RGEC could lead to agency consolidation, or it could simply result in better cooperation between agencies. But RGEC is quite different from Senator Peace's original proposal. It's now a truly grassroots planning effort.

What's the significance of the evolution of this regional authority, and what do you predict will be the impact over time of these promised governance reforms?

RGEC does make reform more difficult since whatever plan is agreed upon requires both legislative and voter approval.

I suspect we'll see a standalone regional airport authority, which we need in order to site a new airport. Lindbergh Field is egregiously overcrowded. It's a 500-acre airport with a single 9,400-foot runway and limited prospects for expansion. We need a new airport. Currently, two-thirds of San Diego's air cargo is trucked to LAX and Ontario. That isn't sustainable, particularly with the growing congestion on the 405, I-5 and other freeways.

In addition, the region's two public transit agencies-the Metropolitan Transportation Development Agency (which covers the City and the south County) and North County Transit-will likely merge. With a regional airport authority and an integrated countywide public transportation agency, we'll be way ahead of the curve compared to the infrastructure governance system that we currently have.

Shifting focus, the L.A. Basin and San Diego have been at odds on both water and power for years. Please address the status of these resource disputes, as well as how they're being handled at the State level.

In terms of power, San Diego was ground zero for this great experiment in deregulation. For those of us that suddenly experienced a 300% increase in our SDG&E bills, it was a rude awakening. But San Diego now has a power rate cap that extends to 2002. Once the cap is lifted, rates will likely rise the way PG&E's and Edison's rates are poised to do. Right now, though, the power issue is a sleeping giant. In the meantime, SDG&E is slowly accumulating debt.

On the water front, the President and the Navy Department in 1946 ordered San Diego into a shotgun marriage with the Metropolitan Water District, and it's been an unhappy union ever since. Today, San Diego wants to know where it stands in terms of its claims on water during scarcity. Because San Diego draws 28% of MWD's water but has rights to only 14%, the San Diego County Water Authority recently filed a lawsuit against MWD and the City of Los Angeles to increase its preferential rights during droughts. Frankly, though, I think it's a moot issue because most legal experts claim that preferential rights are unenforceable under the State water code and longstanding MWD policy.

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Let's take a half-step back. What precisely are the natural boundaries of the region we call "San Diego"? What are the political components, and how do they interact in trying to set regional policies?

No metropolitan area in California is a more natural region than San Diego. We have the Mexican border to the south, the Pacific Ocean to the west, Camp Pendleton to the north, and the mountains to the east. It has the potential to be the great laboratory for regional governance.

But there are political plate tectonics within the region that make collaboration difficult. The northern and eastern parts of the County have long had anxieties about the City's influence. Every time there's a proposal that emanates out of the City-for a regional transportation agency for example-North or East County rebels. For some reason, South County tends to be much more comfortable politically with the City.

There are now two ex-officio, non-voting members on RGEC from those two parts of the County, and I suspect we'll see these regional divides played out there as well.

Let's connect this discussion to the new Speaker's Commission on Regions. What would you personally put on the agenda of that new Commission in the way of public policy and recommendations for reform that would be helpful not only to San Diego, but to all the regions of the State?

"RITA-to-RGEC" is the poster child for two very different models of how California should do regional planning. The original proposal was redesigned to be much more voter and local government friendly. What we have now is a process that truly requires local buy-in.

The Speaker's Commission on Regions should pay special attention to what happens in San Diego in terms of considering the effects of requiring local voter approval for regional governance reforms.

Moving from regional governance to a more micro level of planning, there's an interesting joint effort occurring in the City of San Diego right now to redevelop its oldest and most blighted neighborhood, City Heights. Explain for our readers what the significance of that experiment is, and whether it has any hope of being a model for how government entities plan for their prized inner-city and inner-suburban land-uses.

City Heights is one of California's most important experiments in non-downtown redevelopment. It's an extraordinary public-private partnership crossing the lines of education, public safety, redevelopment, and land-use. Unfortunately, it's been somewhat lost on the local media's radar screen because of the focus on ball park financing and downtown redevelopment.

If the effort fails, it will be evidence to how difficult this kind of first-tier redevelopment may be. On the other hand, if it succeeds, it can be a model for creative public-private and financing partnerships.

Let's close with a question about Los Angeles' Mayoral race. L.A.'s Mayor has a good deal of control over the proprietary agencies that affect infrastructure (unlike San Diego's Mayor). Ergo, what should the citizens of Los Angeles be using as an infrastructure benchmark when going to the polls in June?

In his campaign, Mayor Dick Murphy refused to rule out Brown Field and Miramar as potential airport sites-even though he knew it could cost him votes. In contrast, his opponent, Ron Roberts, originally supported those two sites, but quickly shifted his position once public opposition and NIMBY pressure surfaced.

What's been interesting about L.A.'s mayoral campaign is the general silence if not downright opposition of the candidates to the LAX Master Plan. I think the L.A. mayoral candidates could learn something from Dick Murphy in terms of the courage to stand by their convictions. The region's long-term interest needs to be placed above short-term political gain. As for LAX, voters will learn little until after the new Mayor is inaugurated.

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