During his second governorship, Jerry Brown has frequently touted big public-works projects as the mark of a great society—a marked change from his first stint four decades ago, when “small is beautiful” and “lower your expectations” were his oft-voiced themes.
He did it again last week, effusively plugging two major public works, twin water tunnels and a high-speed rail network, during his final State of the State address.
One might conclude that Brown 2.0 has been channeling his father, Pat Brown, who as governor in the 1960s was also a big booster of public works, including highways, universities and, most of all, a massive water project.
As he nears the end of his gubernatorial career, however, he must contend with the near-failure of the centerpiece of his father’s cherished water system, Oroville Dam, and the conclusions of an expert panel that it was poorly designed, poorly constructed and poorly maintained.
Hundreds of millions of dollars that otherwise might have been spent on improving the system now must be spent to repair Oroville’s collapsed spillways.
Moreover, the two big projects that Jerry Brown has pushed are foundering.
With the exception of Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, other major beneficiaries of the tunnels, which would supposedly improve reliability of the system, are shying away from committing to many billions of dollars in cost.
The defection has become so serious that Brown’s Department of Water Resources is now contemplating reduction to a single tunnel, hoping that its less expensive cost would bring the straying sponsors back.
However, even that strategy is fraught with political and financial peril, and it’s not at all certain that anything will happen before Brown departs a year hence.
The bullet train is also running into trouble.
Construction has begun on 119 miles of track in the San Joaquin Valley, from Madera to near Bakersfield, that originally was supposed to cost $6 billion, financed from a federal grant and state bonds.
However, the cost jumped to nearly $8 billion and the High-Speed Rail Authority’s board has been told that the estimate is now $10.6 billion for a variety of reasons, including higher land costs and construction delays.
The project was already plagued by rising costs and the lack of any feasible plan to finance the entire cost, which now is somewhere north of $70 billion and could easily be much more than that.
Public support for the bullet train is scant and, in truth, it seems to be a solution in search of a problem rather than the vital transportation system Brown portrays it as being.
Conversely, the need for some sort of water conveyance around or under the Delta has been evident for decades. Pulling water out of the estuary has created no end of environmental problems, leading to court-ordered reductions in diversions that have sometimes left water users short of what they needed.
Brown took one stab at solving the dilemma during his first stint as governor—a “peripheral canal” to bypass the Delta—and won legislative approval, only to see it rejected by voters in 1982.
The canal was Brown 1.0’s only major public-works effort, and now he faces the strong possibility that Brown 2.0’s two big projects will also stall out.
Brown insists that he’s not in legacy mode these days. However, he often refers to his father’s legacy of public works, and striking out on his two big projects would be a bitter pill to swallow.