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Californians Dreaming About the Next Metropolis

Earlier this week Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa invited me and a small group of Los Angeles’ business, labor, and environmental leaders to discuss his plan to accelerate the construction of a dozen transit projects in his region. The goal is to build in 10 years what they initially planned to do in 30, hence the plan moniker “30/10.” California’s junior senator and chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Barbara Boxer, was the featured guest since new kinds of federal help is a key part of the plan.

No doubt 30/10 is a big idea and one that could transform the partnership between the federal government and our metropolitan areas when it comes to transportation funding and finance. My remarks there focused on this point.

The core of the initiative is based on the fact that, in November 2008, voters in the city and county of Los Angeles approved a half-cent sales tax increase. Revenue from the tax will fund a set transit and highway projects to be constructed there over the next 3 decades. But since Los Angeles is one of the weakest performing metros since the start of the recession, and transportation problems persist as the economy does begin to recover--and since metro leaders there are an impatient lot--they’ve put together a detailed and innovative package of bonds, loans, grants, and other agreements so the shovels will hit the ground sooner rather than later. The transit agency has a refreshingly clear and transparent run down of the plan and what they’re seeking from the federal government here.)

We discussed the real and tangible benefits from 30/10 ranging from construction jobs created in the short term, to the economic benefits to the region down the line, to the transportation impacts once the projects are online, and the environmental effects especially in terms of carbon reduction. This is all somewhat intuitive--if done right--but it is admittedly hard to assess with any great deal of precision.

Even harder to quantify--and harder to do right--is to make sure that Los Angeles uses the tremendous opportunity presented by 30/10 to remake the physical shape of its metropolitan area that reflects the transformative economic, demographic and technological changes underway in our country. How our nation thinks about its physical future has enormous implications for our economy and will demand that we change not just the infrastructure we build, but the buildings we live in, and the way our metro areas are growing. (And, no, I don’t mean we need to make them animal and fruit-shaped).

Los Angeles has always been on the front lines of debates about metropolitan growth and development. Like many other places, L.A.’s growth was driven by cheap or low cost land, water, and energy. American development patterns over the last several decades followed the same sprawling, consumption-oriented style as our national economy. Yet the fiscal, carbon, and natural resource constraints of the 21st century mean we need not just new policies, but a different approach to building and strengthening the next American metropolis.

Accommodating future growth will require a long-time partnership of all relevant actors--public, private, and non-profit--to design the kinds of accessible and sustainable communities the market is increasingly demanding. The work underway in L.A. can help by making sure that metro area—not just the core of the city—creates, and benefits from, a multiplier effect that results from linking human capital, innovative activity, infrastructure, and value-creation in goods and services in dense geographies. Yet it is important to keep in mind that transit investments like those in 30/10 are an important, but not the only, way to help achieve this goal.