LOS ANGELES – Tired of exasperating traffic jams, aging schools and inadequate affordable housing, Californians have launched a new era of public works construction that could become a model for other states.
California voters agreed Tuesday to finance the program by issuing $37.3 billion in bonds — an amount greater than the annual spending of any other state.
"Voters said they are willing to bear the costs and are unwilling to wait for the feds to get their act together," said Everett Ehrlich of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "That California would see it in its best interest to go it alone and make such a sizable new investment in its future is in many ways new and different."
As a growing federal budget deficit has eroded financial aid for highways and other projects, debates have simmered in recent years in state capitals about how to pay for them.
Critics say California voters made a mistake. The borrowing will top $73 billion once the bonds are paid off with interest in 30 years, thrusting the state deeper into debt just as it is rebounding from the dot-com bust. That could lead to cuts in funding for social services and other programs, they warn.
Supporters — most prominently Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — argue that the benefits of highway and public transit improvements, better-equipped schools and reduced threats of flooding will be worth the cost. That is especially true, they say, in a state predicted to swell by the population of Ohio over the next 10 years.
The four propositions will spend $19.9 billion on roads and public transit, $10.4 billion on school construction, $4.1 billion on levees and other flood-control projects and $2.9 billion on affordable housing.
The bond package will drive a public works building program unseen in California in four decades and could define Schwarzenegger's second and final term in office.
Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce, said passage of the mega bonds will become a catalyst for discussions nationwide about funding infrastructure.
"This is a real victory for people who have the economy in mind," Zaremberg said. "Gridlock costs money. It's really important to maintain our infrastructure."