California’s Infrastructure Projects Are Building Disasters

California spends billions rebuilding burned towns. The case for calling it quits

It would seem a straightforward strategy to spend public money on infrastructure projects to save lives. Or, to borrow a phrase from the state’s former chief executive, “build it.”

But the plan is not so straightforward.

California is spending billions in infrastructure projects under the auspices that they are to be built to save lives. But the projects, as they are happening, are doing the opposite.

We found a common thread in the projects: they were largely built with public money — specifically state bonds — to prevent the state from having to pay the tab for the disasters that they are designed to avert.

That’s the case for a $600 million project in the eastern part of the Los Angeles basin. But in the Santa Clara Valley, a $1.2 billion project to construct two miles of a pipeline to carry water from the Sacramento River to cities, schools and agricultural uses, was funded by a $1.3 billion bond, which includes a $650 million interest-rate subsidy.

The projects, and the process by which they got under way, provide a window into the perils of relying on state borrowing to pay for infrastructure — particularly when the borrowing costs are low.

A review of dozens of projects in California finds the infrastructure to be so flawed that the state is far worse off for the projects’ construction than it was for their demise in the first place. There is no question that most of these projects would have been built with the state’s money, but they aren’t.

Rather, these projects were built largely to prevent the state from having to pay the cost of the disasters that they are designed to avert.

“We’re putting money into buildings without doing the work that’s necessary to support them,” said Jon Schleuss, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, which produced this paper. “It’s an expensive way to run a government.”

There are a variety of explanations for why, in the face of a severe disaster, California seems to be turning to infrastructure projects as an alternative to rebuilding communities.

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