Editorial: Innovative ways to grown jobs in L.A. could also work in Vt.

Desperate times breed innovative ideas. That’s what happened on the job front in the Los Angeles area when two things happened a few years back: after 40-50 years of traffic gridlock, Los Angeles County residents finally voted to pay for the rail lines through the county. The initiative, called Measure R, required support from two-thirds of the voters. It passed with flying colors.
That was in 2008, about the same time the nation’s housing bubble burst with Los Angeles County at ground zero. The state’s construction industry also collapsed, losing a whopping 43 percent of jobs in that sector from 2006-2010. The unemployment rate surged to record highs, and California continues to have one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation today.
Where’s the silver lining? Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, in league with the city transit activists, came up with the idea of compressing the 30-year construction period for the rail lines into 10 years. Building all the rail lines in one decade, activists figured, would create close to 400,000 construction jobs and the multiplier effect of those jobs would create a whole lot of business opportunities for others.
The missing mechanism was an infrastructure bank against which Los Angeles County could take out a loan and repay it based on the guarantee of future tax collections. Because the federal government doesn’t have an infrastructure bank, and because the feds don’t do loans, they had to lobby for a way to make it happen. They did. Through a nationwide coalition called America Fast Forward, a bipartisan fashion Congress passed a federal loan program — funded by guaranteed bonds — that was included in the transportation bill this past year and signed by President Obama.
There’s more to the story, including ways to help hire the low-income, but the message for Vermont is to recognize the opportunities that come from thinking outside the box. Middlebury did just that with its creative funding of the Cross Street Bridge, and again with its locally funded initiative to hire an economic development director to focus job growth specifically in Middlebury. States, too, can play an important role in such innovative thinking.
On the eve of the first anniversary of Tropical Storm Irene, with hundreds of Vermont residents still in need of housing and towns still in need of significant support to restore roads and fix downtown buildings, it’s worth pondering how the Los Angeles County example might fit. Could the state of Vermont levy a half-cent gas tax for the next 10 years, and borrow against that money to fast-forward Irene-related improvements and other road-and-bridge needs in a way that would create more jobs today as well as help those towns recover lost ground faster? For many of those tourist-based communities (particularly along Route 100 in central and southern Vermont, time is of the essence — and every season that goes by with the terrain compromised is money lost.
Or for towns that have the political will to fast-track projects, are there ways those communities could significantly reduce the typical interest costs and save residents millions in tax dollars in the process?
Thankfully, Vermont doesn’t have suffer the gridlock of Los Angeles or the loss of 43 percent of our construction jobs to learn from Los Angeles’ ingenuity. What we need to do, however, is be bold enough to think outside of traditional approaches and be creative. As Los Angeles has demonstrated, where there’s will, there’s a way.
Angelo S. Lynn

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