July 1, 2004 - From the July, 2001 issue

A Brief History of Regional Governance in California: Tranist & Flood Control Districts Offer Instructive Precendents

MIR is pleased to reprint the following excerpt, taken from the first installment in a series of essays for the Speaker's Commission on Regionalism about the history of regional governance and thinking in California. The essay is as much about the ways that we have conceptualized solutions to regional problems as about the institutions that we have used. It examines the paths that led to two of California's most important and imaginative regional achievements: the Sacramento flood control system and the freeway system of Southern California. In both cases, public thinking evolved, moving from a strong feeling that local solutions are best to a reluctant acceptance that a regional approach was essential.

By Dean Misczynski

California Research Bureau

California State Library

The Early Years of Statehood

In California's early years as a state, its governance apparatus consisted of the State, cities, and counties. The State was supreme. California's early Constitution allowed the Legislature to create cities and counties, to define their powers, and even to direct their operations. The notion that the citizens of a city or county had an inherent right to manage their own affairs, what we now call "home rule," was nonexistent or at least of no interest to the Constitution's drafters. The early Legislature regularly passed laws interfering with rather intimate local matters, such as directing a city to pay claims by individuals against the city, to issue bonds or levy taxes, or to sell property it owned. The Legislature also regularly created commissions with State-appointed members to control local water systems, parks, or streets, or giving named individuals the power to lay tracks, or to operate railroads, wharves, or gas works.

These interferences mightily offended local officials, and are mostly described as outrageous abuses of legislative power with a considerable likelihood of hardcore corruption. Although that characterization is probably mostly valid, these laws were also California's first attempts to grapple with regional issues. Railroads and wharves, for example, are elements of transportation systems with consequences far beyond the city or even the county in which they are located. Practical development of a railroad system required that towns along the route cooperate. In this early governmental schema, cities took care of city matters, counties did county stuff, and the State was both state and regional agency, as well as regularly muddling with city and county matters. This regional policy had a dark and sordid side, because the railroads were privately owned, yet unregulated creatures with a tradition of financial generosity to helpful legislators, and the Legislature sometimes compelled the citizens of towns to put their own property at risk to help finance the railroads. It is plausible that the deep distrust that many California city officials feel towards the concept of regional governance has roots in these early struggles.

Regional Approaches to Transportation

Southern California did not invent freeways. Exuberant railroad engineers of prewar Hitlerian Germany did that. Nor was it the first to conceive of a major road system on a regional scale. The Romans got that far. Several eastern cities were building automobile parkways by the 1930s. The Regional Plan Association of New York published a proposal in 1936 for a system of parkways and limited access freeways throughout the counties surrounding New York City. But Southern Californians were the first to conceive of a regional system of freeways as mass transit-a primary means of moving large volumes of people at high speed throughout an urban region. Although this piece of creativity is an awkward success to many advocates for regional planning, it was nonetheless a monumental and hugely influential stroke of regional urban design inspiration.

There was no regional transportation planning agency during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, when the Southern California freeway system took shape. Yet somehow the region managed to invent an outrageously ambitious and innovative conception of its future transportation system, achieve a close to unanimous regional consensus around that proposal, and actually build a good deal of what they proposed. That the resulting system, seen 50 years later, is less than perfect, should not take away from one of the world's most remarkable feats of regional decision-making.

By some magic, Southern Californians thought of the region as an interconnected whole from before the turn of the 20th Century. Still a small city, Los Angeles was connected by rail to San Francisco and its cross continental rail link by 1873, and had its own direct link to the east in 1885. It secured Federal funding for a world class port in 1897. After selling his interest in the Southern Pacific in 1902, Harry Huntington built the Pacific Electric company into the largest urban and interurban train system in the world. His system constituted a true regional transportation network for Southern California. Not content to merely serve existing population centers, its routes were consciously planned to support Huntington's land development efforts. It created the skeletal structure for the region's current urban development. At the same time, Los Angeles was buying water rights and building a 250-mile aqueduct to bring water from Owens Valley, as well as constructing a regional scale system to distribute that water in Southern California. Smallness of vision was not a problem.

Southern California adopted the newfangled automobile more ardently than anywhere else on earth. The climate allowed year-round automobiling, the relatively low-density land development pattern stimulated by the street car network fit automobile commuting perfectly, and roads were comparatively easy to maintain in the benign climate. By the mid-1930s, Los Angeles had far more automobiles per thousand residents than any other city in the country.

Southern California's first semi-freeway was the Arroyo Seco Parkway, running from Pasadena toward Downtown Los Angeles. It was the pet project of Lloyd Aldrich, Los Angeles' City Engineer since 1933, who was inspired in part by having experienced the [Robert] Moses parkways [in New York]. In a brilliant feat of bureaucratic jujitsu, he found money for this expensive roadway in 1936, in the depths of the Depression, by tapping the Federal Works Progress Administration and pointing out that the project would certainly result in immediate employment for many men.

Arroyo Seco cement was still being poured when the Automobile Club of Southern California produced a plan for a regional system of motorways resembling Arroyo Seco. It called for 500 miles of new parkway costing $800 million (at a time when the State of California was spending only $9 million a year on urban highways in the entire State). The plan was quickly supported by the County Planning Commission (which called itself the Los Angeles Regional Planning Commission), and a year later by the State Division of Highways (the precursor of Caltrans). This row of aligned ducks apparently resulted from convivial relationships among Aldrich, City officials, Automobile Club officials, Downtown business interests, developers, and others with influence in Southern California.

The Arroyo Seco Parkway opening in 1940 was a success, the kind of success that inspires governors and other elected folks to extravagant rhetoric and more importantly captures ordinary people's imaginations. The road was widely reviewed as a landmark in quality of design and as providing a whole new level of traffic service.

Making the Automobile Club's plan into reality required serious money, preferably from the State. That required wresting gas tax funds that had been going into Northern California's rural roads into the southern parkways. Changing legislative politics, the stirring example of Arroyo Seco, and the existence of a coherent and widely supported plan combined to help move the State's Highway Commission to agree to use State money to build at least several of the plan's routes to freeway standards, although more slowly than the southerners preferred.

World War II moved the plan nearer reality . In the years after World War II, Southern California became the worldwide focus of urban freeway creativity. Federal and State gas tax funds poured into the California Department of Highways to pay for urban freeway construction. The Department, whose responsibilities had previously been mostly limited to rural highway construction, brought with it a commitment to high travel speeds, safety, utilitarian aesthetics, and cost minimization. While it adopted the spirit of the Auto Club's freeway plan, it interpreted the plan through the prism of its own institutional culture and through the continuing evolution of transportation thinking in Southern California.

The southern freeways have a pyramid-like monumental reality that makes them seem eternal and inevitable. Actually they embody the outcome of a substantially regional policy debate that occurred in Southern California from the 1930s through the 1950s, and later, and could have ended up looking quite different. Several of the more important themes of this debate are:

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• Urban Penetration: While freeways enjoyed near universal support for travel between urban centers, it was by no means obvious that they should be built right into urban areas. Most European countries decided otherwise, and bypassed or maybe circled their cities. Several cities in the eastern United States did the same. The early Auto Club plan finessed the plan by proposed medium-sized, medium-speed parkways to run near urban centers.

By the 1950s, the Division of Highways had no such qualms. It was all for building very large, very high-speed freeways throughout the urban area of Southern California. There seemed little objection from within the region.

• The Transit Connection: The Aldrich and Auto Club parkway plans drew opposition from transit riders and providers, who feared that the expensive parkways would soak up money that would otherwise go into transit service. Since half of Los Angeles' population got around on streetcars and buses at the time, this was a powerful objection. Consequently the plan included transit right-of-way as part of nearly every proposed parkway, usually up the median. Parkway alignments and interchanges were located in places that would fit within an effective transit system.

The State Highway Department did not share this view, and neither acquired right-of-way for eventual transit lines nor located interchanges with any thought to transit-user convenience. They had a limited amount of money, and were intent on maximizing the amount of road they produced with it. While this change can perhaps be attributed to State arrogance and shortsightedness, it seems more likely that it reflected the political reality of Southern California regional preferences by the 1950s.

• Hub and Spoke: Early parkway thinking proposed a hub and spoke road system, centered on the central business district of Los Angeles. The Arroyo Seco Parkway was consistent with that view. This thinking followed the model of the existing rail system, and was certainly popular with the Downtown property owners.

By the 1950s, the Division of Highways director, Edward Telford, proposed an alternative model. He noted that the hub and spoke system conformed with land-use arrangements that prevailed when people got around by rail, one with an especially important CBD and other nodal points located along rail lines. In an automobile society, he argued, an efficient transportation system would make vast urban areas equally accessible, by constructing a grid system of freeways (he proposed a four-mile grid) without any particular focal center.

The freeway system that resulted is a hybrid combination. Substantial areas of Southern California are gridded, while the main alignments that came from the Auto Club plan focus on the CBD. Again, this compromise shift in thinking almost certainly had a dominant following in the region.

• Speed: Parkways were designed for automobiles traveling around 40 miles per hour. That was partly because the cars of the 1930s traveled comfortably at that speed, and partly because of a mostly aesthetic sense that cars in urban areas should not go faster.

The Division of Highways preferred 60- and 70-mile per hour design speeds. This choice had major design implications. Faster roads had to be straighter, curves more gradual and more steeply banked, off and on-ramps occupied much larger areas, lanes had to be wider. Again, this State intrusion probably enjoyed wide support in the region.

• Region vs. State: During the 1930s and 1940s, Aldrich proposed creation of a regional highway authority to actually build the roads proposed in the Auto Club plan. But postwar Federal legislation poured funds for urban freeways into the State Highway Department, and State legislation conformed to that model. So the State designed and built Southern California's freeways. There was little opposition to this arrangement, both because the abundance of money was attractive and because Division of Highways thinking was resonant with that of the region.

Tentative Lessons

The [flood control system of the State's northern valley and the Southern California] freeway networks were regional achievements of spectacular proportion. Their spectacle lay not only in their physical size and stunning cost, or in the way they transformed the functioning of their regions, but also in their breakaway creativity. Although not necessarily representative of all regional possibilities, these examples suggest some candidate generalities:

• The core of each was a compelling vision backed up with a compelling reality. The southern freeways grew from the concrete experiences of the Autobahns and the eastern parkways, applied to Southern California's distinctive sprawl, and modified by a wave of technical speed and safety innovations. The example of the Arroyo Seco parkway demonstrated irrefutably that limited access roadways were reasonably fast, safe, and, most importantly, enormously popular with the motoring, voting public. A roadway plan that could be summarized in a one-page map was fronted by the Auto Club but appeared to represent a consensus of the movers and shakers of the region. It served as a summary vision around which the rest of reality conveniently shaped itself.

• Money was important. Both projects were hugely expensive. Both relied on major financial assistance from the Federal and State governments. Both benefited from historical circumstance-the rise of the Progressives in the case of the flood control project, and World War II and its aftermath in the case of the freeways. But in both cases, it was the compelling vision that attracted the money. Neither was an example of government throwing money at a problem without any idea of what to do with it.

• Purely regional governmental institutions had only a modest role. The flood control plan resulted from the work of the Corps of Engineers and the State Engineer. The freeway case is more ambiguous, since the City and also the County of Los Angeles played a major role in crystallizing thinking around parkways and eventually freeways. The combined Los Angeleses were large enough to arguably represent the center of mass of the region, especially in the 1930s, and perhaps should be understood as a regional governmental institution. Nevertheless, the defining vision was actually published by the Automobile Club, and important support for it came from a non-institutional group of business leaders, Auto Club officials, highway engineers, developers, landowners, and public officials. That informal group probably constituted as close to a working regional planning group as actually existed at the time, and it was certainly effective. Its work was eventually updated and modified by the State Department of Highways, but presumably in reasonably close consort with a similar group of Southern California interests.

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