September 18, 2006 - From the September, 2006 issue

Long Beach Seeks New Investment, and EPA's Help With Port Pollution

Bob Foster has traded the presidency of Southern California Edison for elected office in Long Beach. With the retirement of veteran mayor Beverly O'Neill, Foster won election this summer and takes the reins of a city that has experienced more challenges-and has more potential-than cities many times its size. In this MIR interview, Mayor Foster discusses his plans to partner with the ports and other local jurisdictions to protect his constituents health and quality of life, and he explains his strategy for attracting business to and boosting the economy of California's fifth-largest city.


Bob Foster

Congestion and pollution from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach pose two of the greatest challenges in the L.A. area. What are your priorities with respect to these issues?

Pollution and congestion is the number-one problem for the city.

The port is a huge economic asset, and we'd like to see it continue as such, but it also imposes severe burdens on our residents. For instance, someone who lives along the 710 Freeway in Los Angeles has a three times higher incidence of asthma than the statewide average. The congestion problems are evident to anybody who gets on the 710 Freeway and travels around the ports. What is most disturbing to me is that the technology exists to improve and mitigate most of these impacts. I think that there tends to be both a lack of political will and maybe a lack of political structure to handle it.

The cost of all these impacts are already in the system, and the wrong people are paying; it's allocated incorrectly. My residents are paying with their health, increased medical bills, lost time at work, and, in the extreme, premature death, just so that someone in the Midwest can receive an inexpensive TV.

That has to change. These costs need to be borne by the consumers of these goods. We need to find a way to clean up the air and water and improve our infrastructure so we can alleviate the congestion.

You recently were invited to address a ports summit hosted by the federal EPA that included representatives from carriers, railroads, and the Port of L.A. as well as other national ports. What message did you want to deliver to EPA, and what's the federal government's role in protecting the health of your local economy and the public?

The message I wanted to deliver is that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are working together and have embarked on a clean air program that I consider ambitious and laudable. But I also wanted to deliver the message that there is a substantial role for the federal government to play, and I believe it's not yet meeting its responsibility.

The port is a national asset. Seventy percent of the goods brought through the ports end up in places other than California. There has not been adequate attention to, nor adequate funding for, road extension and road improvement. There has not been adequate funding for mitigating the pollution in and around the port in both air and water. The residents around these ports in Los Angeles and the whole city of Long Beach are no longer going to subsidize inexpensive goods movement to other parts of the country with their health. It's time for the federal government to take that responsibility.

You said, with respect to the need to mitigate port pollution, that perhaps there is a failure of structure; i.e. that the city or county government cannot by itself deal with such challenges. What structural challenges need addressing?

The ports engage in interstate commerce, so only the federal government and the EPA can set standards on oceangoing ships. Only the federal government can set standards on locomotives. Those two issues alone, in addition to funding, require all three levels of government to cooperate because there are limits to what the state and the cities can do.

I think that the state of California is now doing its share-there is a significant bond issue on the ballot this fall that will fund infrastructure enhancement for goods movement and about $1 billion for environmental cleanup related to goods movement. The two ports and the AQMD are funding their share of infrastructure improvement and environmental cleanup.

I think the federal government has yet to get serious about pollution from oceangoing ships, both U.S. and foreign. And they have not tackled the pollution from rail and other mobile sources. Projects exist; I don't want to make it sound as if there are none. But, we have to get serious. If the ports are going to double their throughput by 2020-that is simply not sustainable at the current levels of infrastructure, and it's not sustainable with the current environmental impacts.

You've succeeded a three-term mayor, Beverly O'Neill, and you've assumed the office of mayor in the fifth-largest city in the state and the 35th largest in the country. What are your priorities? What occupies your attention?

Public health and safety are the two top issues of the city, including public health relative to the ports and their environmental impact. As for public safety, we are a very diverse city, with the typical urban problems you'd expect in a large city.

We also have issues surrounding our law enforcement personnel. Other jurisdictions are luring away some of our most experienced personnel, and we have to devise a system that provides some measure of increased compensation to keep them. In addition we need to bring more public safety personnel on board. That includes paramedics and police officers.

Third is our infrastructure for public safety-particularly our fire stations. There are fire personnel living and working in divisions that really are unacceptable. We are going to have to spend a lot of time and resources upgrading and rebuilding many of those facilities.

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You campaigned for office on making Long Beach environmentally and economically sustainable. What needs to change?

I think that those are somewhat separate issues. You can have a vibrant economy and a clean environment. When I was with Edison, for example, many people said you couldn't keep 20 percent of your portfolio in renewable energy and still keep rates anywhere near an acceptable level. But the Edison Co. did that. It leads the nation in renewables, and it has probably the best program for efficiency. I am a strong advocate of efficiency programs and renewable programs. I actually wrote California's first statute and implemented its first regulations on energy efficiency.

The business environment does need improvement. There is no doubt that Long Beach has a reputation for not being especially business-friendly. I've talked to businesses that did not move here and asked them, as sort of a mini-exit interview, why they didn't come to Long Beach.

The thread that ran through those discussions was that it wasn't the cost of doing business-typical things like taxes, or permit regulations. Businesses avoided Long Beach beacuse other cities had assigned people at very high levels to help them overcome any difficulties they encountered in the city.

During the campaign I said that the mayor's office is going to be the ally of any clean businesses that wants to bring well-paying jobs with benefits to our city. My office will help them overcome any difficulties they encounter.

Secondly, our Planning Department managers have recognized that they have not been structured properly and that their culture needs some change. They have undergone a dramatic improvement to streamline permits and to make sure that when you go in for any permitting that you have one person assigned to you through the entire process-you don't get handed off from Planning to Fire to something else.

The head of that department, Suzanne Frick, is committed to this, and I think it will go a long way towards changing the environment. It's going to take a few successes where people say, "you know, I wanted to come to Long Beach. It's one of the last affordable coastal environments, and people were friendly and they assisted me through the process." We are going to have to show people that we can do that.

Five years ago in The Planning Report Mayor O'Neill described Long Beach's development predicament as a choice between adding density or changing zoning from commercial and industrial, to residential. She lamented that neither option is very popular among constituents. The city of Long Beach is now updating its general plan. How will the city deal with this conundrum?

I think that density has its place. Certainly in the downtown core density has increased, and it appears to be both attractive and functional. I think out in the neighborhoods density is probably not valuable and not as workable. You can have the kind of business and retail development on the corridors that I think will enhance the economic vitality of the city.

As far as industrial and commercial goes, it's important to attract businesses that offer skilled, good-paying jobs because we are going to embark on a program to train some of our population for those jobs. Especially in a built-up city, I think it is important to preserve commercial and industrial space. We've made progress in that direction. We have a new development that is almost entirely industrial and commercial, called Douglas Park. Part of the old Douglas facility now has been turned into an area that is going to attract a substantial number of new businesses.

I think our general plan update will try to guard our commercial and industrial areas to make sure that we still have sufficient area to attract clean, good-paying, and skilled jobs.

A year from now, what accomplishments do you hope to tout?

We've made a substantial impact in reducing crime in the last ten years, and I'd like the city to be even safer a year from now. I'd like to make substantial progress on the pollution impact from the ports, additional cooperation from members of government, and a fully funded program to mitigate environmental impacts.

And I would like to make progress on helping businesses that will contribute to the economic vitality of the city locate in Long Beach. Finally, when we have a significant population that's in poverty, we have to provide the economic opportunity for young people who today don't see much hope.

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