May 4, 2004 - From the November, 2003 issue

USC's Keston Institute Assessed By Its Founding Donor

The facilities that fall under the umbrella label of "infrastructure" are many. To help define and shape the development of California's infrastructure, Michael Keston has endowed the Keston Institute at USC's Lusk Center. Metro Investment Report is pleased to present this interview with Michael Keston in which he discusses the focus and agenda of the Keston Infrastructure Institute and the state of infrastructure planning in California.


Michael Keston

Michael, it's been one year since the Keston Institute at USC was established. Give us an update on what's been accomplished to date and what still needs to be accomplished.

In about September 2002, we hired an executive search firm to look for potential Directors for the Keston Infrastructure Institute. In May 2003, we were very fortunate to hire Julie Bornstein, who was the head of the California Housing and Community Development Department, as Director of the Infrastructure Institute. We have been actively engaged since May 2003 in putting together an organization-we now have a staff of five people, we have a mission statement and a business plan that we hope to pursue in an exponentially increasing manner over the next 12 months. In particular, we have three (3) separate program areas. One is academic research. The second is a debate series and conferences related to current significant statewide and local issues. The third is a formation of a Fellows Program to include prominent journalists, members of the business community and persons from state and local governments to engage in selected infrastructure research and lectures.

Take a step back. What compelled you to make the grant to USC to create this infrastructure institute? Why infrastructure?

Everybody has talked about the fact that in the days of the 1960s and Pat Brown, and with the strong legislature of that time, California was the leader in the world in creating infrastructure to accommodate the explosive growth of our state. The University of California colleges, state freeways and highways, the spectacular water storage and delivery systems, and the extensive statewide power grids that we have-most of it was initiated, planned, and built in that period of time. It is now 40 years later, our population is 35 million going towards 50 million, and there is no vision in this state, nor one central organization or government agency with the mandate and responsibility for creating the public infrastructure, which is required to accommodate the economy of California for the next 40 years. Our Institute hopes to be a major participant in helping to define this vision for the 21st century.

State Prop. 53 was on the same ballot as the recall election; it failed and received very little attention. Is there a silver lining in Proposition 53's failure at the polls?

There was a very strong silver lining in having Prop 53 on the ballot. For the first time in probably the last 20 years, there was a statewide dialogue about public infrastructure. Each candidate was questioned on the state of California's infrastructure and all agreed that we have a crumbling infrastructure, with no provisions for maintenance of that infrastructure, and surely no central capital budgeting. The fact that Prop 53 was defeated doesn't concern me because that was the first step. Sometimes, an initiative has to go down to defeat and be brought up again in a different form that's acceptable to the voters and the legislators for it to finally pass. Although this may not have been the right vehicle, everybody recognizes the importance of finding ways to create and fund new infrastructure and maintain our existing infrastructure. That was important.

Michael, infrastructure is a policy wonk term. Bring it down a level of abstraction. What are we talking about when referencing infrastructure?

To bring it down a level, public infrastructure is a word that is not sexy. If we had a better term for it and a better phrase that invoked quality of life, business and economic growth, and something with bells and whistles people would get more excited. But basically, public infrastructure is public investment in roadways and freeways, in water and sewers, in the power grid, in flood control and in public parks and open space-the things that make it easier and more enjoyable to live in our communities.

What is the cost if state and local governments don't address our infrastructure shortcomings?

The cost of not addressing our traffic problems, includes having commute time that currently takes twenty minutes taking take fifty minutes or over an hour in the future. Instead of having a low cost, stable energy supply in this state, we will have blackouts like those in the east this past summer. If we can't water our lawns or flush our toilets or take showers when we want to, our quality of life will be very negatively affected. These are drastic possibilities, but they're not that far away when the state's population is set to increase from 35 million to 50 million people and we do not have a statewide comprehensive infrastructure construction and funding plan to expand and maintain our public infrastructure.

If the Keston Institute were writing an open letter to the new governor and his team re what ought to be on the new administration's agenda regarding infrastructure, what would be the letter's bullet points?

I would say is that there's a real hope for people in this state to have a new look at how we solve a whole variety of issues impacting California. Among those important issues is public infrastructure. I would ask that the Governor and Legislature seriously consider, as soon as possible, the creation of a California Public Infrastructure Agency. That Agency could include CalTrans, with responsibility for all transportation planning, the Department of Water Resources for water supply, distribution and storage and the Energy Commission, Public Power Authority and the Public Utility Commission for energy supply and distribution as well as encouragement of development and use of alternative energy sources and conservation programs.

The Agency would have total responsibility for capital budgeting, as well as for maintenance, of all of the vast public resources in this state. And, that Agency will be the one to look forward and say, "How do we provide more capacity on our freeways and roads? What should be the mix of new construction and ideas for reducing travel during peak driving times? Where and to what extent shall we select toll roads or congestion pricing as alternatives? What should be the mix between buses and light rail? What should we do about creating new sections of the energy grid system that are missing? How do we coordinate between the various owners of the energy grid system throughout the state of California? What do we do about water storage? What do we do about allocation of water between the farming community, the urban community and the other users of water?" How do we pay for this Public Infrastructure? What combination of State and Municipal Bonds, Sales Tax and private sector funding should be considered?

To have responsibility for all of these resources in one Agency dealing with the full scope of statewide infrastructure planning and budgeting would be a magnificent start to dealing with our infrastructure challenges.

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The Federal Homeland Security Agency, which combined the Coast Guard, Border Patrol, FEMA, Airport Security and Customs Security functions after the September 11th tragedy is an excellent precedent to consider for this concept.

Are you suggesting that California government today is unable to make adult-like decisions about investing for our future needs? What about our governance structure and processes needs change-besides the creation of this new super-agency-to give you comfort?

There's been enough written about this, especially in the last six months, for people who just occasionally pick up the newspaper or look at television to understand that the governance process in California is fractured.

To address this problem, I would point to two specific issues:

First, the legislature has created voting districts that are safe for the members. This is not good for the public. We need to create a system where moderates of both the Republican and the Democratic parties can appear on ballots and be elected, instead of having the extreme of both parties be sitting in safe seats without concern for the consequence of their actions or inactions. That means we need to create an independent body of some sort, whether it be retired judges or some other independent group to change the district election boundaries so that instead of five or six of our legislative districts being up for real choices in any year, there would be thirty or forty seats at risk. Then, there could be a healthy dialogue and exchange, people would have the right to say what they want, and there would be an ability to change legislators in order to really address the issues and desires of the people of California.

Second, the issue of term limits must be reviewed and amended. Most voters would not propose eliminating term limits, but I believe they would support perhaps doubling the length of time to twelve or fourteen years that each Assembly Person or Senator could serve. Extending the maximum terms would allow people who want to be professional legislators to come into office, worry less about raising money to get elected two years later, and have some sense that they have long-term careers. Then they can learn and be valuable to the people of California. We should have experts in energy. We should have experts in water. Thirty years ago we did, because people stayed in the legislature and they were the leaders. Today, our legislative terms are so short that the lobbyists provide our policy guidance. That should be unacceptable, and that's the kind of thing that we need to correct.

Those two changes are critical to put us on the right path toward an invigorated California, a system where people have a choice to vote for what they want and a government that is responsive to those needs.

Los Angeles is a fairly dynamic metropolitan region. Given USC's very significant role in this basin, is there a local and regional agenda that is part of the Keston Institute's focus?

USC is not a Southern California university, it's a state and national resource. We have a campus in Sacramento and we expect to be holding debate series, conferences, and symposia in Sacramento, as well as working with legislators on legislative briefings and leadership institutes in Sacramento. And we hope to deal with infrastructure problems in that context. We know that Los Angeles is probably the most congested area in the state. And, the Bay Area is not too far behind LA when it comes to congestion. So we need to deal with these issues in the Bay Area and in Southern California.

We know the congestion problems of the 101-freeway and the 710-freeway. Yet, the backbones of our elected officials seem to crumble when a small number of people object to improving and widening those freeways to the detriment of the hundreds of thousands of people who travel on those freeways every day. Public debate should concentrate on these types of governance issues.

We need to analyze projects like the Alameda Corridor-has that been a good investment and how do we make it even better and stronger? We have to look at the ports of LA and Long Beach and determine how we keep them open 24 hours a day to accept deliveries of goods so as to reduce peak hour congestion. Transportation issues are not one big issue, they're a series of multiple regional issues. You've got to deal with each problem in each location, and there are probably 30 hot spots in the state. If we can have dialogues with stakeholder groups that have an interest in those 30 hot spots, and if we can learn how to use the common lessons of one to fix the others, it would be a remarkable, wonderful benefit.

If we come back in a year to review the status of the Keston Institute's work, what do you hope to be chronicling?

In a year from now, I would hope we could say that a California Public Infrastructure Agency has been formed in Sacramento. I hope there is a central and comprehensive California budgeting process and financing plan for infrastructure and that we have moved forward aggressively to create initiatives in transportation and water and sewer and parkland that will serve as our blueprint for the next thirty years in the state. And, I would hope that we in the Keston Institute have had a major impact on leading and shaping the dialogues to encourage sound infrastructure planning and development policy in California.

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