The Daily News of Los Angeles
March 22, 2001 Thursday, Valley Edition


BYLINE: Shirley Svorny, Local View

THE new Brookings/University of Southern California report on the Los Angeles area, "When Sprawl Hits the Wall: Confronting the Economic Realities of Metropolitan Los Angeles," warns of dire consequences if the Greater Los Angeles Area doesn't engage in regional planning. The authors distort information to paint a bleak picture that, in their view, regional planning can resolve.

The authors of the report have an unsubstantiated faith in regional planning. This is ironic, given the fact that our largest, most regional governments - Los Angeles County, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Los Angeles Unified School District and the city of Los Angeles - have been the least successful in meeting residents' needs. The key problem, as the authors see it, is that the population of the Los Angeles region, a five-county area, is expected to grow by 6 million in 20 years, but there is no place to put these people. This, of course, makes no sense. Population growth with limited land will drive housing prices up, slowing the influx and prompting some residents to move elsewhere. Developers will respond to higher prices by building up rather than out.

The report paints a picture of an awful place to live - high cancer risk, prone to natural disaster, congested highways, running out of water, polluted, sprawled to the wall. If residents and immigrants share this view of Los Angeles, the good news is that overcrowding will not be a problem.

Although I give thumbs down to regional planning, the report suggests several things that I think should be done, things that will work.

First is the need to rationalize the state's fiscal incentive system. As the report explains, the tax system currently rewards cities for building shopping malls rather than homes or developing industrial and commercial sites.

The state should eliminate tax incentives that favor one land use over another. It is not a good idea, as a general rule, to discourage local governments from industrial and commercial development.

Second, the authors of the study are on track proposing the "overhaul of local building and zoning codes, which often make recycling of used sites for housing more difficult." Don't look to regional planning to solve this, however. The worst offender is the oversize regional government that runs the city of Los Angeles.

The third important recommendation is to "overhaul the region's transportation system."  

Here we have decades of experience with regional transportation planning. It has failed. More local control is the answer to inefficient use of dollars.

Finally, a fourth laudable objective is to clean up our streets. Simple things, like keeping streets clean, can go a long way toward making an area attractive. We don't need regional planning to move forward on this margin. This is a local problem.

A report like this would not be complete without a few paragraphs explaining the constraint on growth imposed by limited supplies of water. But the scarcity of water in the Southland is an artificial one. The real problem is not the amount of water, but its price. Low prices for some users mean that water is wasted every day in the state.

If it is true, as the authors of this report suggest, that we are at a stage where we must look for creative solutions to our problems, we should turn to the private sector.

For example, instead of funding a public agency that sees rigid, inflexible, expensive transportation systems as the ride of the future, let's allow private firms to compete to provide transportation in the Southland.

The authors have it backward. We don't need one more regional planning initiative.

A better policy is to downsize government, to allow more local control. We already have many good proposals on the table. They include the proposed detachment of the Harbor, Hollywood and San Fernando Valley areas from Los Angeles, the proposed San Fernando Valley transit district and the proposed breakup of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

EDITOR-NOTE: Shirley Svorny is a professor of economics at California State University, Northridge.