During Jerry Brown’s first stint as governor four decades ago, he was openly disdainful of big public works projects, often citing British economist E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 book, “Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered.”
Brown’s attitude manifested itself in a virtual halt to highway construction, which led to constant bickering with his fellow Democrats in the Legislature who wanted projects in their districts.
It also was widely seen as a repudiation of his father, Pat Brown, who as governor had fostered a massive expansion of highways, waterworks, college campuses and other forms of what we now call “infrastructure.”
The younger Brown did, however, push for building the last major link in his father’s California Water Plan, a 43-mile-long “peripheral canal” that would carry water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to San Joaquin Valley farms and fast-growing Southern California’s residential tracts.
Moreover, he did talk about some new kinds of public works, such as the state’s launching its own communications satellite – earning him the nickname of Governor Moonbeam – and a bullet train to link the northern and southern halves of the state.
None of it happened, however.
Although Brown won legislative approval of the peripheral canal, he failed to gain backing from two powerful constituencies – San Joaquin Valley farmers who thought it was inadequate and environmentalists who thought it went too far.
The two disparate groups formed an odd-bedfellows alliance and repealed the peripheral canal authorization in a 1982 referendum, just as Brown’s first governorship was ending.
The satellite and the bullet train never got beyond the talking phase.
When Brown became governor again in 2011, a bullet train project had been launched with voter approval and a successor to the peripheral canal, twin tunnels beneath the Delta, was being actively pursued, thanks largely to his Republican predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Californians quickly learned that Jerry Brown 2.0 had changed his mind about public works – even lamenting publicly about the state’s inability to think and act big.
He enthusiastically promoted the bullet train and saw ground broken for an initial stretch of track in the San Joaquin Valley. And he pushed hard for the tunnels as a solution to the bottleneck in the Delta.
Brown will soon leave the governor’s office for a second time, and neither of the two big projects he’s adopted as his own is certain to continue.
The twin tunnels, dubbed California WaterFix, seem to have the better chance, thanks to recent financial commitments by Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District and other agencies – even the San Diego County Water Authority, which had been a very sharp critic.
Brown played a key role in those approvals, personally beseeching Southern California officials to do what they had seemed somewhat reluctant to do.
However, the project still faces a gauntlet of environmental approvals and potential lawsuits, and it’s unclear whether Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a San Franciscan and the leading candidate to succeed Brown, would continue to back the tunnels. Northern Californians tend to see WaterFix as a water grab by the south.
The bullet train is markedly shakier, since the High-Speed Rail Authority has yet to come up with financing for extending the San Joaquin Valley stretch to San Jose and, according to a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll, just 31 percent of the state’s voters now want the project to continue.
Brown certainly hopes both will become reality, but it’s just as likely that both will go onto his gubernatorial scorecard as incompletes.