California’s Need For Speed

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The sooner, the better -- and the cheaper.

That's today's reality -- at least when it comes to building infrastructure. That was the message of Southern California powerbroker and former Assemblyman Richard Katz during a panel discussion on rail transportation held Tuesday night at, of all places, an automobile museum in LA's Miracle Mile.

The bad economic times make this the right moment to push big rail and infrastructure projects. Materials and labor costs are relatively low, and the need for the economic boost is high. By locking in today's lower prices with big public works contracts today, government can build more things, more cheaply -- and at a time when people need the work. If governments wait until the economy improves, infrastructure will cost more.

The point is illustrated by two major rail projects with which Katz is involved. As a member of LA County's Metropolitan Transit Authority, Katz is a key player in an effort called "30-10": accelerating 30 years of voter-approved public transit projects in greater Los Angeles through federal borrowing that will allow them to be built in 10. (A tax increase approved by LA voters to support the projects can be used to pay back the federal lonas.) By going faster, more than $4 billion can be saved, turning an $18 billion series of 12 major projects (including the famous "subway to the sea" in LA) into a $14 billion project that provides jobs and the benefits of new transit sooner.

On the other side of the speed divide, Katz is a member of the board of the state's High Speed Rail Authority. That's a $40 billion project that's been plagued by slow planning and poor oversight, according to a recent audit. If high speed rail could get off the ground quickly, it would enjoy the advantages of the LA County projects. But even though California voters approved a $9 billion bond in November, the project has only about $11 billion of the money it needs. That's not nearly enough to start building now. And delays will be costly.

How costly? Another panelist, Adrian Moore of the libertarian Reason Foundation, said the project's price tag could rise to as high as $82 billion.

Talk about the fierce urgency of now.

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