In Ayn Rand’s bestselling screed against the evils of bureaucracy, Atlas Shrugged, the nation’s infrastructure collapses as political hacks and regulators exert ever more control. In one of the book’s best-known scenes (outside of John Galt’s absurd 60-page radio diatribe), a series of politically motivated stupidities causes a diesel locomotive to collide with a train loaded with explosives. That leads to the spectacular destruction of the Taggart Tunnel.
California’s infrastructure has likewise been collapsing after years of neglect — despite record-setting state revenues. But the state’s political leaders aren’t content merely allowing our roads, freeways, bridges, and water systems to fall into disrepair. These days they aren’t just shrugging at bureaucratic incompetence. They actively are sabotaging these infrastructure systems.
If that sounds like an overstatement, then consider the latest evidence. Two weeks ago, this column spotlighted one state agency’s efforts to torpedo an Orange County desalination project that could meet up to 16 percent of the water needs of that county with a population of 3.1 million. Worried about the impact of the water facility on Pacific plankton populations (and rising sea levels from climate change), the California Coastal Commission staff issued a report urging the elected commissioners to deny the plant a permit.
Did I mention that they did this in the midst of yet another historic drought — one that is leading to 35 percent water reductions among Southern California residents? Or that the facility has been studied for years and is similar to one in San Diego? By the time you read this, we’ll know how the commissioners voted, but it’s amazing that it’s this hard to build a shovel-ready water project when the state is literally running out of water. This week’s infrastructure news, however, gets even wackier.
California has been reticent enough about upgrading its thousands of miles of freeways (not that its reluctance to pour new concrete has had much impact on the size of the California Department of Transportation staff). Even when Caltrans actually tries to build something, things rarely go as planned. It finished the reconstruction of the east span of the Bay Bridge 24 years after the Loma Prieta earthquake — a project that experienced 2,500 percent cost overruns.
Now California lawmakers want to make that “we can’t really build anything” situation the state’s official policy. As the Los Angeles Times reported: “Top state transportation officials recently pulled the plug on a $6-billion interstate widening in L.A. County…. Multiple state lawmakers want to do the same, including one proposal that would prohibit freeway expansions in underserved communities across California, an effort that would be the first of its kind in the country.”
I’m not surprised this is a first-in-the-nation effort, given that most state governments, you know, try to expand road lanes to make it easier for their constituents to get around. California also has been on the cutting edge of “road diets” — using tax dollars earmarked for road construction to remove street lanes and replace them with bicycle lanes. Making matters worse, officials are using money to do this from a transportation bond that they sold to the public as a means to reduce congestion.
Anyway, supporters of the legislation ending freeway expansion point to the destruction that freeway-widening projects have wreaked on poor communities. As someone who has written extensively about eminent domain abuse, I agree that this is a fair point. But the answer is to place more limits on how governments build freeways — not impose a wholesale ban on the widening or building of all freeways. Poor people hate congestion, too.
My favorite section from the Times article: “No longer will the state add freeway lanes solely to allow more cars and trucks to use them, said Toks Omishakin, secretary of the California State Transportation Agency, which oversees the state’s transportation network. ‘That is the past,’ Omishakin said. ‘We cannot do projects like that moving forward.’” The head of the state’s Cabinet-level transportation agency doesn’t think we should build stuff anymore.
OK, that’s a little harsh. The state’s leadership does want to build bike lanes, hiking trails, urban transit, and a high-speed rail line that will zip people from Merced to Bakersfield in record time — and maybe even down to Los Angeles if the engineers figure out how to get the $105 billion project over or through the Tehachapi Mountains. Only a tiny percentage of Californians rely on mass transit, so the obvious thing to do is (figuratively) blow up the freeway system.
In fairness, this new approach simply spells out the long-running state policy. “Standing atop eight lanes of grooved pavement and pristine yellow stripes in the kind of distant Los Angeles suburb made possible by endless highway construction, Gov. Gray Davis today dedicated the latest section of freeway to be built in California and declared that the project would be the last,” the New York Times reported nearly 21 years ago.
“Davis used today’s ribbon-cutting ceremony on a broiling, smoggy afternoon to underscore this fundamental shift, saying that the primacy of the automobile in transportation planning was over,” the newspaper continued. The primacy of the automobile is not over — at least not to the Californians who rely on their cars. It’s no wonder the state’s congestion has become more intolerable with each passing day, even as our population growth falls somewhat.
This is no accident. It’s by design.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at email@example.com.
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