May 5, 2004 - From the May, 2003 issue

Julie Bornstein Brings Experience, Leadership To USC's Keston Infrastructure Institute

To address the state's aging and increasingly neglected infrastructure network, Michael Keston last year endowed the Keston Infrastructure Institute at the Lusk Center for Real Estate at USC. Metro Investment Report is pleased to present this interview with Julie Bornstein, the newly appointed and uniquely qualified founding director of the Keston Institute, in which she discusses her vision for the center and what attracted her to the challenge.


Julie Bornstein

Julie, what enticed you to take this new position at USC's Keston Center?

It is a position that addresses the most critical issue facing California policymakers. And, while I love the job I had at Department of Housing and was excited about the proposition of distributing the Prop. 46 funds, the challenge of starting a new institute that would have a broader perspective and look at a number of infrastructure issues was just an exciting challenge.

In the conversations with the selection committee, what about this university opportunity appealed to your imagination?

There were a couple of things that caught my imagination. One was Mike Keston's passion for looking at infrastructure issues in the broader sense. He's interested in looking beyond the physical nature of how do you build good roads efficiently, how do you use resources; on water delivery systems using high technology for example. What appealed to me was Mike Keston's vision for looking at infrastructure issues in light of the fiscal environment, in light of the demographic changes that we know are coming in California, and then looking at the broader issues of both political and social infrastructure and how they impact the ability of policymakers to make decisions. So, it was that willingness to adopt a full faceted approach to issues of infrastructure that I found particularly exciting.

The chasm between "town and gown," between university and public policy makers, has only grown in recent years. What from experience do you believe are the avenues for closing that chasm and bringing the research on work that you hope to do at the university to the greater attention of policymakers in the capital?

I think you are right to identify the chasm. This will not be the only think tank in existence to research and publish research on infrastructure issues or other related public policy issues in California. What attracted me to this project, and I am assuming why the committee selected me to be the founding director, was the focus on bridging that chasm. It is critical that policymakers have reliable information that meets rigorous academic standards. Having had the experience of being in the Legislature and serving in the administration, I know that there are significant time constraints imposed on policymakers. There obviously are considerable resource constraints that are imposed. So, bringing the university closer to those that are actually in government and need to make these decisions will benefit all of us. There is no single approach as to how we are going to do it. But we hope to develop a reliable and stable line of communication and to publish our information in a way that makes it easily accessible to policymakers.

Now, to be fair, there are some engaged in public life, who practice politics professionally, who believe that the university is not the kind of place that understands or appreciates the environment, the difficult choices, that elected officials are asked to make. Is the university

a good platform from which to address policy makers?

Clearly, policymakers are charged with understanding not only what research in an objective environment might show to be optimal ways to use resources or what the human behaviors are in terms of responding to needs in a community, but they also have to deal with the interests of stakeholders and issues of inclusion and equal access that research doesn't necessarily incorporate. So, while I don't think the university would ever be in a position to dictate outcomes on policy decisions, it has a significant role to play in providing appropriate data and reliable information. It is up to the policymaker to balance the information provided by universities with the various other factors that go into the decisions that create appropriate and effective policy.

In terms of whether the university is the appropriate place to do that, the university is exactly the place to do that because there are very few places in the world from which you can expect an objective analysis. And, objective analysis is the primary mission of a major research university like USC. In addition, the University is a marketplace of ideas, so what better place to discuss the diverse perspectives of diverse constituencies?

As we do this interview, the region has just suffered a few major setbacks to what many hoped would be consensus infrastructure investments in the LA basin. First, a RAND report said that the mayor's airport expansion plan had major flaws in it. Second, Sheila Kuehl backed away from supporting the 710/101 expansions because of too much heat from impacted citizens. Is there hope for infrastructure investment given inevitable controversy and weakly committed political leadership?

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I think that there is still hope. Of course, one thing that attracted me to government is that I'm generally optimistic that we can affect our future and make it more positive. And, so far in my life, events have proven me not to be completely unrealistic in that way. The one thing though, that we'll do at Keston, is try not to get involved in individual infrastructure projects. We do want to look at those issues that impact the decisions. And, if public attitudes and perhaps a lack of support for a particular project caused Senator Kuehl to change her opinion, then that only underscores the necessity of looking at social infrastructure in addition to the issues of the physical infrastructure itself. Using that as an example, it is not just looking at what is the route of the 710 or 101 and how much does it cost it extend the freeway, one also has to look at the community's involvement, the community's support and the impacts on the community in making those decisions.

Let's get down to the nitty-gritty. As the Keston Center's first director, how will you go about shaping its priorities and focus in the coming years?

We're going to take a fairly broad look at infrastructure. It's been my perception, having served in government, that there is a fairly broad consensus throughout the state that California's investment in its infrastructure has not met expectations. Demonstrating the importance of infrastructure is not an issue-we're already there.

However, there are other questions that are very much worth pursuing. What are the impacts of our failure to invest in infrastructure? How does that affect the broader community? How do we develop the appropriate political environment where decisions can be made? As an example, if we're going to deal with water quality issues, it's not enough to address runoff when it reaches the LA Harbor-we have to look at the entire watershed. That may involve so many different political jurisdictions that it's almost impossible to make a decision. So, we want to look at the political infrastructure and the various jurisdictions involved in order to know who needs to be at the table.

So, examining our physical infrastructure is our first track. Looking at the political infrastructure is our second track. The third track to follow and develop is surveying our social infrastructure. How does the impact of the way we view ourselves as a community affect our infrastructure investment? A lot has been said about the post-World War II generation and the investments made in California 50 years ago-whether it be the road system, the California Aqueduct, or the university system. Do we have a different social environment now that affects whether we invest in infrastructure and how much and by whom? And so we want to look at the community's interest in infrastructure and what the community would be willing to support in terms of infrastructure investment.

In terms of priorities, we're looking to define those elements of infrastructure about which there is a consensus. We all have an idea in our mind about what infrastructure actually means. But, when you sit down and actually talk to people, sometimes you find that that's not always the same idea. So, one of our first priorities will be to define what infrastructure really is.

How, again, is the Keston Intitute planning to capture the attention of decision-makers and be relevant? What's your strategy?

We're just beginning to put that strategy together. But, I suspect that too is one reason I was hired-I've already served in government. That experience gives us access to a number of decision-makers who at least know we are aware of what kind of environment within which they make decisions. So, we won't come in as outsiders knocking on the door. I have the ability to call upon former colleagues and can lend my experience as a legislator to the effort to make us more relevant in the policy making process. So that certainly helps. Also, we will engage in a number of activities that we hope will be structured to work for a legislator's calendar or a local government official's calendar. We have at our disposal the full resources of USC to use a variety of mediums to deliver our message: newsletters, briefings, conferences and discussions, for example.

A year from now how should we assess how much progress you've made against your hopes and expectations?

I think a year from now you should look to see what kind of publications and events have come from the Keston Institute and to see if, in fact, the public discussion has changed in any way.

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