Dan Walters: Politicians often ignore California’s aging infrastructure

08/09/2014 11:15 PM

08/09/2014 11:21 PM

The Sacramento Suburban Water District, which supplies water to some older neighborhoods outside the city, is engaged in a decades-long project to replace its aged, undersized water mains and install meters as required by a new state law.

It’s what government agencies charged with maintaining public services are supposed to do.

It’s not sexy, it doesn’t lend itself to flashy videos or political hyperbole; it’s just good government at its most basic level and something that distinguishes advanced civilizations.

But because maintaining infrastructure isn’t sexy, political overseers – especially those in multipurpose city, county or state governments – are often tempted to shortchange it and divert the public’s money into other political imperatives.

Over time, of course, that neglect accumulates, and we experience systemic breakdowns.

Clearly that’s what happened when a 90-year-old water main that should have been replaced years ago ruptured in Los Angeles. The resulting flood caused many millions of dollars in damage. Afterward, Mayor Eric Garcetti warned, “This will not be the last one.”

By happenstance, as that mess was being cleaned up last month, the Los Angeles city controller, Ron Galperin, issued a report on long-standing neglect in maintaining the city’s streets.

It said that bringing Los Angeles’ streets up to standard would cost $4 billion, and added that much of the money that should have been spent in years past on streets was wasted due to mismanagement.

However, such neglect is not confined to Los Angeles.

A new report from the American Council of Engineering Companies echoes what other authorities have been telling us for years – that the state’s largest and perhaps most important infrastructure, its highway system, is falling apart and needs hundreds of billions of dollars in maintenance and reconstruction.

The ACEC lends its voice to a chorus of warnings from other knowledgeable organizations that California must find new ways of financing much-needed roadwork because the gas tax no longer reflects the reality of automobile travel.

Battery and hybrid-powered vehicles are proliferating, and even those using gasoline will be getting better mileage in the future, which makes the gallonage-based tax obsolete.

We need to find a different and better way of closing the gap, perhaps with a new form of user fee based on mileage rather than gallonage. But the political lift for such change would be heavy, and few politicians are willing to try it.

One reason Sacramento Suburban has been doing what needs to be done and Los Angeles hasn’t is that the water district is a single-purpose agency that doesn’t have other distractions.

Undertaking long-range infrastructure upgrades conflicts with politicians’ preference to grease – with money – the wheels that are squeaking the loudest now.

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