Oil and vision

As an actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger often portrayed characters from the future. As governor, his role has been regrettably reversed. At a time when dynamic vision is required to see the way forward, Schwarzenegger seems mired in the policies of the past. His proposed $222 billion public-works overhaul is the latest case in point.

It’s no coincidence that late former Governor Pat Brown, who served from 1959 to 1967, has been cited as an inspiration for the new plan. With the exception of the dollar amounts, which have risen exponentially since the 1960s, Schwarzenegger’s proposed list of improvements addresses the same areas as Brown’s ambitious public-works projects of the past, which created the state university system, the California aqueduct and the state’s renowned freeway system. During the upcoming decade, the governor proposes spending $107 billion improving the state’s faltering transportation system, $60 billion shoring up education, $35 billion on flood-control and water-supply projects and $17 billion on public safety. To augment spending, $68 billion in bonds will be issued over the next 10 years.

Certainly, Schwarzenegger’s plan rivals Brown’s in terms of scale. But Brown’s forward-looking vision transformed California into a world leader in public education and agriculture; the state’s “clover leaf” freeway interchanges symbolized its newfound economic vitality and the upward mobility of its citizens. Lacking Brown’s vision, the best Schwarzenegger can offer is to repair the past’s decaying infrastructure.

But we need more than this. Much more.

As SN&R recently reported (“Sacramento on empty,” SN&R Feature Story, January 26), sometime within the next 50 or so years, the global supply of petroleum will run out. In fact, the growing consensus among experts is that at the current rate of global oil consumption, this event will happen sooner rather than later. We can only hope there is enough time between now and then to implement the changes that will make it possible to survive and thrive in a petroleum-free world.

As SN&R’s report noted, local governments are ill-prepared to make this transition. That goes double for the state. Schwarzenegger’s proposal doesn’t even mention the challenge this eventuality presents to the state. Just 4 percent of the $107 billion allotted to transportation improvements in the governor’s proposal goes to mass-transit systems that would lessen dependency on oil and stretch out dwindling supplies. Does it make sense to spend more than $100 billion improving the state’s freeways as we near peak oil? Doesn’t it make far more sense to spend transportation money on the build-out of public-transit systems like the long-postponed California bullet train?

Contrary to Democratic and Republican critics in the Legislature, the problem with the governor’s plan isn’t that the state can’t afford it. The problem is that it’s the wrong plan. The state must begin to consider how it will transition to the coming post-oil society. This is especially true when transportation dollars are at stake. Frighteningly, no member of either party seems ready or willing yet to step up to the plate.