Road to the Summit: Bay Area focuses on infrastructure at regional forum

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(Photo Credit: Violeta Viqueiro, Susan Lovenburg)

The Bay Area certainly has its strengths, with a technology-driven economy that produces the highest GDP per capita in the nation, attracts nearly half of all U.S. venture capital spending, and supports a workforce that is one of the country’s most highly educated.

But regional leaders at an economic development forum in San Francisco on Wednesday were eager to find a way around the obstacles standing in the way of the Bay Area’s future growth: A housing boom that is squeezing middle-income workers, employment rates that continue to stagnate at 1997 levels, and a labor force that may be falling out of sync with the region’s needs.

“There is something going on in the Bay Area today—a focused effort to bring our resources to bear on these challenges,” said Sean Randolph, president of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute at the San Francisco forum, one of sixteen regional meetings being held around the state leading up to the 2013 California Economic Summit in Los Angeles this November. “I can’t remember a time in the last twenty years when had this seriousness of a conversation about our region’s priorities.”

Participants at the forum identified several areas of focus for the region—including investing in workforce development and streamlining state regulations (most notably CEQA, a subject the Summit has been covering closely).

But it was infrastructure, in particular, that emerged as the region’s top priority.

Infrastructure means affordability

“When you talk to elected officials in Sacramento about infrastructure spending, you can see their eyes glaze over. But this isn’t just about goods movement or connecting workers with their jobs—it’s about making the Bay Area more affordable,” said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), a group that promotes long-term planning and sustainable infill development.

“If we can invest in transportation systems and transit, and we can get people down from two cars to one, we’ll allow a lot more people to live here. We’ll all benefit from that.”

Finding a way to pay for these needed infrastructure investments—estimated at $765 billion over the next 10 years for all of California—has proved difficult. Metcalf, for one, offered a short-term solution: “Updating CEQA is probably the single free-est thing we could do as a state to take on our land-use challenges.”

José Luis Moscovich, the former director of the San Francisco Transportation Authority, made a convincing case for a long-term approach: Leveraging public-private partnerships to make the region’s goals a reality.

“Being able to deliver things on time and on budget is something we’ve been talking about for years; it’s hard for government to build trust without doing that,” said Moscovich. “Our ability to get things done increases dramatically when the private sector engages.”

Moscovich spearheaded the development of San Francisco’s Presidio Parkway, a $1 billion public-private partnership to revamp the 70-year-old approach to the Golden Gate Bridge—a project that successfully brought together European investors with American construction and maintenance crews (and taxpayers).

He highlighted research showing the high costs—and cost overruns—of traditional infrastructure projects (funded by bond sales and built by the lowest-bidder).

Moscovich pointed to CalTrans data showing overruns in most of its projects costing more than about $50 million—the price of building a freeway interchange. Mega-projects with price tags over $300 million or more, meanwhile, cost tens of millions more than expected roughly 60 percent of the time.

Building up the state’s expertise in using public-private partnerships to fund infrastructure is a top action item identified in one of the seven Signature Initiatives to emerge from last year’s Economic Summit. With the state continuing to lack the resources to meet its infrastructure needs, alternative financing options have been a frequent topic of discussion at other regional forums, as well.

“I find it exciting to hear talk about blending economic development and really big-picture planning,” Moscovich said.

Scaling up statewide

In agreement was Kish Rajan, the director of the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz), who recently attended regional forums in Orange County, the San Joaquin Valley, and the Sierras—and who noted how much the state’s regional priorities match up with the governor’s.

“Gov. Brown is determined to shake things up in Sacramento,” said Rajan. “This is a great opportunity for me to hear from you, and to listen to your ideas as we develop a set of shared priorities across the state.”

What could Rajan’s office be able to do to make these goals a reality? “First, where government is in the way, we should get it out of the way,” Rajan said, mentioning the state’s complex regulatory system, in particular. “What government can do is invest in infrastructure and education, and make sure our fiscal house is in better order.”

Bay Area leaders clearly share this same goal—and are already finding ways to work better as a region. John Gioia, a member of the Contra Costa County board of supervisors, provided an update about his work as chairman of the Joint Policy Committee, a group working to coordinate the planning efforts of the region’s four planning agencies.

“We all need to stop competing among ourselves in the Bay Area,” said Gioia. Instead, the region must integrate efforts to address the land-use and housing challenges that could stunt the Bay Area’s growth.

“We are one region,” said Gioia, “And we’re going to sink or swim together.”

Policy priorities for the state

After outlining their top priorities for the region, participants identified a range of policy proposals they thought would help the Bay Area take on these challenges. They included:


  • Lowering vote threshold to 55 percent (from the current 2/3rds) for infrastructure projects
  • Developing a comprehensive state infrastructure plan
  • Modernizing the state’s water system


  • Preparing more students for careers in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math)
  • Integrating community colleges with regional industry sectors


  • Modernizing CEQA, the state’s 40-year-old environmental law
  • Streamlining regulations

Justin Ewers

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