A Bridge Too Far?

We have been saying it for years, but no matter how often it is said—or how many others join the chorus—the basic problem persists: California’s transportation infrastructure is among the worst in the nation….and, no surprise, it keeps getting worse, not better.

This week, Transportation for America, a Washington, DC-based non-profit, again documented the problem. California’s bridges and elevated roadways are now ranked the 18th worst in the nation. One in eight of our state’s bridges is considered to be a “high priority” for repair. The problem is so bad that just last week the federal government announced the adoption of new bridge inspection standards.

Perhaps most troubling is that the report finds that the average age of California’s bridges is 44.4 years. Most bridges are designed to last just 50 years. Does that portend a new wave of structurally deficient bridges?

The problem appears to be more severe in northern California. According to the study, in the San Francisco Bay Area one in five bridges are in the high priority category. In fact, San Francisco is at the top of the list of the group’s cities in America for concern over bridge conditions and safety. And outlying parts of the Bay Area do not have it any better. Solano County has 61 bridges that are “structurally deficient.”

The public understands that this is a serious matter. A recent national poll found that 91 percent of the voters believe that repairing and maintaining our roads and bridges should be the top priority for state transportation spending. [make “recent national poll” hot: http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/documents/lessons-from-the-stimulus.pdf%5D

How on earth did we get here? California has one of the largest economies in the world. Last year, the state spent $907 million in federal dollars on bridge repair, far more than any other state. Yet still we have not kept pace. Part of the problem is that state and federal transportation funding fluctuates from year to year. Another problem is that inflation has eroded the purchasing power of the gas tax. Another problem is that multiple studies have found that Caltrans has higher than average overhead costs.

Another problem is the terrible financial condition of the State of California. California now has the lowest credit rating of any state in the union and so must pay the highest interest rates when it borrows money and issues bonds. Also, according to the State Treasurer, the State’s debt service on already approved bonds will reach the historically unprecedented level of ten per cent of the state’s total general fund spending.

There is a project delivery technique, which avoids these problems, which is getting more and more use throughout the United States and indeed around the world. That technique is public-private partnerships (P3s), which combine public sector oversight and project sponsorship with private sector financing, expertise and accelerated project delivery.

P3s are especially vital to California now, when our economy is down, when people are hurting and when voter approval of tax increases is difficult to achieve.

Support for expanding California’s use of P3s has grown and grown. Construction unions, business leaders, public policy commentators, local public officials and many others now support the use of P3s to finance and quickly deliver need transportation projects. It represents a timely, innovative solution to fixing our critical infrastructure.

Unfortunately, though, when it comes to actual use of P3s, California severely lags most other states and many nations. The reason for that lag is not hard to find: A politically powerful union of Caltrans employees (Professional Engineers in California Government or PECG) has fought California’s use of P3s in every possible way: in the legislature, during the state’s administrative procedures, in the courts and in the media.

At this point what California needs is a complete overhaul of our approach to financing and fulfilling infrastructure projects in the state. To move forward we need to bring together the best that the public and private sectors. And we need to get moving quickly. We must not ignore the need to fix our structurally deficient bridges and elevated roadways.

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