How can California leverage what some have called a once-in-lifetime federal investment in infrastructure to build a brighter future for all? In a virtual event last week, PPIC vice president and senior fellow Lande Ajose talked with three state and local leaders about infrastructure’s critical role in promoting opportunity, equity, and sustainability for California’s diverse communities. Reflecting the many ways infrastructure affects our lives, the conversation ranged from planting trees to closing the digital divide. But the main focus was on improving the movement of goods and people.
For Toks Omishakin, California’s new secretary of transportation, addressing longstanding safety and equity challenges and climate change are key priorities. He stressed the importance of diversifying transportation by making it safer and more convenient for people to bike and walk, moving forward with high-speed rail, and investing in zero-emissions infrastructure. “Nearly 50% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the state come from transportation,” he noted.
All of this work needs to be done with an eye toward equity. “We have to do more to provide choices and connections,” he said, “and as we do that, we can’t have the negative outcomes that we’ve had over the past 50–60 years, as we were building the system by dividing communities. Transportation is supposed to be a uniter, not a divider.”
Acquanetta Warren, mayor of Fontana—a city at the center of California’s transportation and goods movement systems—looks forward to fixing local streets, bridges, and sewer lines. “Our focus has to be on the aging of our infrastructure,” she said. “Our infrastructure assets are costly long-term investments, and sound infrastructure is the backbone of our local economy.”
Danny Wan, executive director of the Port of Oakland, stressed the need for statewide coordination of shipping and goods transport. “The pandemic shown that we need to have a statewide goods movement/freight policy,” he said. “The system is so fragmented that any clog in the chain . . . can get the goods stuck.” He also noted that California ports, which are among the least efficient in the world, need to look for “long-term solutions to densify our ports, to make our ports more efficient, and to also invest in green energy.”
Better linkages and coordination are also essential when it comes to moving people. For Mayor Warren, the challenge is to make mobility easier and safer. “It’s not that easy here, we’re spread out,” she said. “So we’ve got to come up with a way for people to feel safe . . . and not have to plug into so many channels to move somewhere.”
Given the breadth and complexity of California’s infrastructure challenges, the panelists agreed that making the most of this opportunity will require coordination and communication across regions and levels of government. But they are hopeful that California will invest wisely—and equitably—in a better future. As Wan put it, “There is a direct link between investment in infrastructure and improving our lives.”
PPIC’s Speaker Series on California’s Future invites thought leaders and changemakers with diverse perspectives to participate critically, constructively, and collaboratively in public conversations. The purpose is to give Californians a better understanding of how our leaders are addressing the challenges facing our state.
PPIC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it support, endorse, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office. Any opinions expressed by event participants are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect any position of the Public Policy Institute of California.