California’s next budget challenge is 50,000 miles long and $770 billion

150 150 Justin Ewers

Presidio Parkway construction (Photo Credit: Presidio Parkway)

The election may have helped California get one part of its fiscal house in order—with the Legislative Analyst saying the passage of Proposition 30 has helped the state reach “a promising moment: the possible end of a decade of acute state budget challenges.” 

But, there are budget challenges and then there are budget challenges. And California still has plenty of fiscal messes to clean up. Next up, experts say, along with looming pension and health care challenges, is the state’s long-overlooked infrastructure deficit—which estimates put at over $770 billion over the next 10 years. 

It’s a big, shocking figure—so big that it can be hard to understand the challenge facing the state. And yet, a study published by the Think Long Committee for California (PDF) outlines just how much California needs to invest, in everything from bridges and pothole-filled streets to crumbling schools and other public buildings to meet the needs of a growing population.

But what do these numbers mean—and how can maintaining roads, rails, and buildings add up to more than three-quarters of a trillion dollars? 

The truth of the matter is this: California is home to the largest and most complex infrastructure system in the country, where big numbers beget even bigger numbers.

Just one example: Almost half of the state’s 3,800 community college facilities—the engine of California’s regional economies—are more than 40 years old. With enrollment expected to skyrocket in the next decade, administrators estimate the system will need to upgrade 29 million existing square feet of labs, libraries, and office in the next five years alone—and build another 18 million square feet of new facilities.

To avoid overflowing classrooms, leasing space at high costs off campus, or turning would-be students away, the state will need to modernize literally thousands of old buildings and build hundreds of new ones. 

Total cost: $13.8 billion for new facilities and $15 billion for modernization.

Transportation – The $500 billion elephant

Or take transportation infrastructure, which accounts for the vast majority of the state’s infrastructure needs. That piece requires more than $500 billion in the next 10 years. The estimate comes from an assessment prepared for the California Transportation Commission (PDF), which last year surveyed each of the state’s regional transportation planning agencies, asking them to identify projects they needed to expand and preserve to meet expected demand over the next decade. 

The survey criteria was simple: Regional agencies were asked what was needed to bring those facilities, from highway rest areas to bridges and drainage facilities, to merely a “state of good repair.”

Once again, big numbers add up. California’s state highway system includes 50,000 lane-miles of pavement—a road system so expansive, if it were laid out in a single lane, it would wrap around the world twice. The state maintains more than 12,000 bridges, 205,000 culverts and drainage facilities, and 87 roadside rest areas. It’s also responsible for 29,000 acres of roadside landscaping—the equivalent of completely planting over Central Park … 35 times. 

Even making small investments in an infrastructure system this large costs big money—something California’s government has been forced to postpone over the last decade. California transportation officials estimate the state currently has about $240 billion in existing revenue to pay for transportation infrastructure costs over the next 10 years—leaving the state’s transportation projects alone short about $300 billion. 

“California clearly does not have the resources in its public budgets [to take on these projects],” said Sean Randolph, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute and co-chair of the Summit’s Infrastructure Action Team, in front of a Little Hoover Commission committee in Sacramento last month. The Economic Summit’s infrastructure action team is focused on finding ways to tap private funds to finance, build, and operate many of these public assets.

The election may have done many things—including solving some of the state’s budget problems. But there’s much more to be done. More than 50,000 miles of it. 


Justin Ewers

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