June 23, 2004 - From the January, 2001 issue

Steven Erie: Infrastructure, Airport Expansion, & The Need For Regional Governance

California has had a long history of infrastructure greatness. But the last major expansion Southern California experienced was the port and airport system. As UCSD's Director of Urban Studies and Planning and long-time infrastructure guru Steven P. Erie tells us in the following MIR interview, unless we realign our State governance structure to accommodate regional solutions for regional problems, SoCal will not become the bastion of economic success being forecasted, but rather one of insufficient water supply and a lack of effective transportation.

Steven P. Erie

Professor Erie, you've been studying and writing about California's infrastructure needs and our official responses to such needs for years. With Speaker Hertzberg's recently appointed Blue Ribbon Commission on Regions, share with our readers what you've learned and what this Commission needs to address.

This is a very appropriate time to talk about regions, because they have become the new economic engines in an increasingly globalized economy. In order to remain competitive in a global economy, regional cooperation is imperative, especially when it comes to infrastructure. The problem is, fragmented regional governance structures aren't quite up to the task. What this Commission needs to do-in addition to encouraging us to think regionally-is to get us to act regionally as well.

We also need to understand that the concept of a ‘region' is often slippery. What's the definition of the Los Angeles region? Is it L.A. County? When do we include Orange County? San Diego Dialogue has just wrestled with this problem with its cross-border globalization project. It concluded that for certain purposes, San Diego County is the region; for others, it might include Tijuana or Imperial County. And when it comes to infrastructure-airports, ports, rail lines and water-San Diego is joined at the hip with L.A., Orange County and the Inland Empire.

Regardless of what definition we use, one thing is abundantly clear: we need far greater regional cooperation. The problem is that our governance structure is incredibly parochial, and the forces of localism continue to be strengthened with things like L.A.'s recent charter reform effort. We now have not only the threat of secession, but the reality of Neighborhood Councils that may serve to pull the City Council in an even more localistic neighborhood direction.

The question we have to answer is this: How can we create governance institutions and public/private partnerships that think and behave regionally?

And what price will we pay if we fail to align our governance structures with these regional economic units?

The most important price will involve the big-ticket regional infrastructure projects like airports-where regional benefits are dispersed and costs are concentrated and localized. If we can't start thinking about regional projects that bring substantial regional benefits-particularly those that connect us to and make us competitive in the global economy-where is this economy going to be in 20 or 30 years relative to our 21st Century competitors, not only in California, but also the Pacific Northwest, Miami, and the East Coast?

Southern California faces an incredible challenge. In a sense, we're still riding on the tails of the infrastructure patrimony bequeathed to us by William Mulholland, Pat Brown and Tom Bradley. Bradley oversaw the last major expansion of the region's port and airport system. And we simply cannot continue that once-proud history of infrastructure greatness-the key ingredient to our 20th Century success story-unless we see some real regional leadership on these projects.

It's not just public sector leadership that needs to be involved; it's the private sector as well. Because of a perceived lack of leadership coming from the public sector, initiatives like the LAEDC's recently formed ‘Critical Infrastructure Council' are summoning the business community to become more involved in these crucial issues.

Let's turn to airports. You've been studying the airport capacity issues of both Los Angeles and San Diego. Is their any similarity? How do you define their challenges, and what needs to happen in order to advance meaningful options and solutions?

There's actually not much commonality between the two airport situations. In many ways, San Diego is a feeder airport into LAX.

The problem with San Diego is that the airport is governed by the Port District-a limited-purpose special district whose jurisdiction only goes from the tidelands in about a half-mile. San Diego's airport future is not Lindbergh Field. It simply cannot be expanded. At 500 acres, it is one-seventh the size of LAX, which is itself a relatively small international airport.

The challenge in San Diego is to create a regional airport authority like the one that San Diego's new Mayor, Dick Murphy, suggested in his recent State-of-the-City address-a regional airport authority with appointed commissioners. Now that may help us site a new airport. In fact, Mayor Murphy suggested a stand-alone authority that focuses solely on the airport independent of the other regional governance consolidation efforts.

The problem with LAX is that it has historically done almost all of the heavy lifting in terms of the region's international passenger and cargo load. What Los Angeles needs to do is get Orange County and the Inland Empire-who have basically been free riders-to the table. But at this point, the City's governance structure does not encourage that. I'm heartened by the recent El Toro court decision to throw out the Locally Unwanted Land-Use (LULU) initiative, which raised the bar of required voter approval from a simple majority to two-thirds. As a result, Orange County has gone back to the drawing board and is now considering a much smaller, domestic, midsize airport of 14 to 15 million annual passengers (MAP) rather than the initial 28 MAP-in what I call the ‘camel's nose under the tent' strategy. Yet getting new airports on-line will take a lot of time, and until then, we must continue to rely upon LAX.

With LAX, all of our international airport eggs for Southern California are located in one basket-and that basket is not expanding. The air traffic demand through LAX is expanding, but we're not able to mitigate the negative impacts such as longer travel times on the ground. As a result, Southern California's entire economy will become increasingly less competitive as LAX's costs-not only wasted time, but also ticket prices and other things-go up.

The airport situation in Southern California is the Achilles heel of our global engagement. The port and rail systems are on track and on schedule, but the exports needed to create a high value added, high-tech economy are shipped by air. We're getting further and further behind the Bay Area, Seattle, Miami, and other competitors due to our airport situation. And it's largely a governance issue. Currently, the L.A. municipal airports department is doing most of the region's airport planning in the face of strong NIMBY pressure at LAX. Yet, airport benefits are regional, and we don't have a regional authority like metropolitan New York. So right now, our biggest challenge is to involve the rest of Southern California in developing new airport capacity.

As a UCSD professor, give us a sense of how the new Mayor's agenda fits with the infrastructure needs of San Diego?

What was amazing about Mayor Dick Murphy's recent State-of-the-City speech was how much he focused on infrastructure. He talked about the prospects for our airport, our energy situation, and possibly creating a municipality like L.A.'s DWP. Right down the line, infrastructure was a top priority.


Or take the Governor's State-of-the-State address, where energy trumped education as the number-one issue. Or consider the Governor's Infrastructure Commission. Finally, issues like water, energy, airports, ports, rail, transportation are rising to the surface of public awareness. And it's just in time. California has a $90-billion backlog of deferred maintenance and vitally needed new projects, and we simply can't live on Pat Brown's legacy anymore. If we want to maintain global competitiveness in the 21st Century, we're going to have to make those investments at both the State and local level. While the process requires real leadership, it also extends to changing our entire governance arrangement for infrastructure.

Another infrastructure issue you've written a great deal about is water. Are our regional institutions equipped to meet the demand projections for California?

I'm hopeful that under its new leadership, MWD is moving in the right direction.

However, the jury's still out on things like the Mojave Desert conjunctive use and transfer agreement with Cadiz, Inc., which would be a major step forward for So. California.

What's at stake is that if we have a prolonged dry spell-and with El Nino and La Nina, that may very well happen-in the year 2020, we'll be 300,000 acre-feet short. And that is notwithstanding everything that MWD has on its plate. In other words, with another drought like 1987-92, we will hit a wall of shortage. Even if we have normal rainfall over the next 20 years, the reserve margin at MWD will drop from about 20% to 5%.

The truth is, Southern California is a $500-billion economy in the middle of a desert. So how do we deal with our vitally-needed water supply? One solution will certainly be water transfers and conjunctive use. Yet the only transfer we've seen so far is the San Diego/Imperial Irrigation District deal. We're going to have to incentivize these transfers, particularly from Northern California where we have some spare capacity in the State Water Project Aqueduct. The Colorado River Aqueduct (depending on how the Interior Secretary rules on surplus and banking issues) will probably be full for the foreseeable future. But the State Water Project has hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of available space.

Ultimately, if the price can be brought down, our region's water future may well depend on desalination. But that's not likely to happen for the next 30 to 40 years, depending on how fast the technology advances.

Have the State's policies and recent funding priorities contributed to solving these regional infrastructure challenges? And, once again, what do you hope the Speaker's Regions Commission will address?

The mere creation of the Commission is a salutary move forward. There's at least some recognition at the State level that a regional governance system is critical to maintaining a healthy position in a globalized economy.

But it promises to be a lengthy process. The forces supporting the status quo are mammoth, including the many elected officials (even with term limits) who have a vested interest in this incredibly fragmented system of hundreds and thousands of local governments, and particularly special districts.

The other factor in terms of the State's relationship with regions is the fiscal capacity issue. As a result of Proposition 13, for the past 20 or 30 years California has not been very good at incentivizing wise local land-use decisions. There are a lot of things the State needs to change in order to give regions the incentive for governance reforms that include consolidating cities and counties, strengthening counties, and creating new multipurpose special districts. For example, the new regional governance planning process in San Diego may result in merging a variety of transportation, land-use planning, border infrastructure, and regulatory agencies.

In short, we really need to start thinking outside of the box. And the Speaker's Commission is a welcome first step.

Re: thinking outside the box, some have said that you are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to academic researchers interested in local government and regional policy. While academic institutions are often the centerpieces of our regions, why are so few willing to grapple with the problems you're addressing?

It's called promotion and tenure. The incentives inside Academia, particularly in mainline social science departments are not to appreciate and reward interdisciplinary, applied research. Instead, they favor abstract theory and methodology.

What we need to do is change the career reward structure inside the universities to encourage this kind of regional involvement. The Univ. of Southern California is a leader in this regard because it counts things like public and community service as part of the promotional process. USC also has several research centers concerned with these issues. Regional engagement is not as institutionally anchored in the Univ. of California system, although its schools of public policy, planning and associated centers are the exception. Hopeful signs are UCLA's new "in L.A." initiative and UC's new interest in Sacramento-focused research and academic programs.

It really comes down to California's public and private universities recognizing the need to incentivize scholarly research and engagement in vital regional and State issues. This is an incredible dormant resource that is potentially available. Yet, if we don't change the internal reward structure-either in terms of funding these important research projects or promotion and careers-it's going to be a tough row to hoe to get the academic community to rethink regional realignments.


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