Jerry Brown has opportunities, risks in massive public works agenda

05/26/2013 12:00 AM

09/10/2013 9:34 AM

On a TV special one night in February, Gov. Jerry Brown appeared live on location to start a countdown to the planned Labor Day weekend opening of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

Brown envisioned a public celebration with biking and running events. When his interviewer remarked on the large size of the project, Brown said, "It's pretty big, but you know what? We've got some bigger ones coming."

As California emerges from the recession and years of spending cuts, the state is poised to spend billions of dollars on public infrastructure – and Brown is longing to build.

By the end of this year, the Brown administration plans to open the $6.4 billion span of the Bay Bridge and start construction on a $68 billion high-speed rail system. He is pushing forward a proposal to build a $14 billion water project.

"California is in a building mood," the Democratic governor said on the Bay Area's KPIX-TV in February. "And this has taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears, a lot of billions of dollars, but at the end it's worth it, because we're building for the future."

Brown's agenda is reminiscent of the far-reaching public works program championed by his father, Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, in the 1960s, when the state expanded its freeway, university and water systems. For the current governor, it is an opportunity to accomplish more in his third term than balancing a budget and promoting a ballot initiative to raise taxes.

"My sense of it is that when elected officials talk about a legacy, investment in infrastructure or public works is lasting," said Will Kempton, a former state Transportation Department director who is now executive director of Transportation California, an advocacy group.

"It's something where you're making a lasting contribution to society by virtue of building the freeway system or, you know, the water project that his father built. ... Those are lasting benefits to society."

At the bridge site in February, Brown said, "When you build things they last. People come and go, but the bridges and the roads and the tracks, they stay for a long time."

Yet if a public works program constitutes an opportunity for Brown, it is not without political risk.

After largely dismissing concerns about the structural integrity of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge for months, Brown said last week he does not know if it will open as scheduled on Labor Day weekend.

"I take it very seriously, and that thing's not going to open unless it's ready," Brown told reporters in Berkeley. "And the engineers are telling me that they're doing the kind of work that will be needed for that."

Brown has defended construction and oversight of the project by Caltrans. Last August he said he had been told a Bee investigation raising questions about the structural integrity of the span's signature tower foundation "is not very credible" and "borders on malpractice."

Even after a special team within Caltrans uncovered broader problems with bridge safety testing, including work done on the Bay Bridge, Brown in September said he was inclined to agree with Caltrans leaders that the structure was sound.

"You've got the engineers saying things are on track. We have a couple of reporters saying, 'Hey, they're not on track.' I tend to have confidence in the engineers, but I've got an open mind, and certainly we can have some more dialogue."

Then, after inquiries from The Bee, Caltrans officials disclosed in March that 32 massive bolts had broken. The agency later conceded that thousands of other parts were considered suspect.

Brown responded that engineers were reviewing the bolt reports, but he also said, "I mean, look, s--- happens."

Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, said Brown's remark was a misstep, even if it is partly true.

"It was an uncharacteristically unwise remark because it looks bad enough as it is," he said. "It would look downright terrible if there were some accident involving that bridge."

"On the one hand, you have to recognize that the problems are inevitable," Pitney said. "But on the other hand, when public safety is at risk, you have to take every possible step to reduce the risk."

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown said the governor was until recently able to avoid involving himself in controversy about the bridge because concerns raised were highly technical, including questions about concrete hardening in the foundation of the new span's tower. Those concerns remain a stumbling block to opening the bridge, and are under review by experts assembled by the Legislative Analyst's Office.

"I think the bolts are the ones that the public can understand better," the former speaker said. "It's much simpler if you see a big bolt and you see it crack. There does not have to be any debate about whether something's wrong."

The governor's recourse on the matter of the broken bolts, Willie Brown said, is to "fire the bastards. ... I'm sure he's going to get around to it."

The governor's record reflects a willingness to change direction when under pressure. He reconstituted the California High-Speed Rail Authority board and dramatically lowered the project's estimated cost when the endeavor faced overwhelming criticism in the Legislature last year.

On the Bay Bridge project, the Brown administration in December canceled a $10 million public relations contract for work including the production of a video and commemorative book after The Bee requested records related to the agreement. The administration said it was previously unaware of the contract.

"Jerry's not a micromanager," said Sim Van der Ryn, the state architect when Brown was governor before. "He told me when I got there, 'Look, I'll support anything you want to do, but if you get me in trouble, you're out.' "

Brown promoted versions of his rail and water projects when he was governor from 1975 to 1983, ultimately unsuccessfully. In his return to Sacramento he has redoubled his efforts, clashing with environmentalists in his attempt to clear regulatory hurdles to development.

"Analysis paralysis is not why I came back 30 years later to handle some of the same issues," Brown, now 75, said at a news conference last year promoting his proposal to build two tunnels to divert water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the south. "At this stage, as I see many of my friends dying – I went to the funeral of my best friend a couple of weeks ago – I want to get s--- done."

Following a trip to China this spring in which Brown marveled at the pace of construction, he said at a California Chamber of Commerce event Wednesday that the world's second-largest economy is "pretty impressive," with thousands of miles of high-speed rail lines and "cranes everywhere you look."

"They've got some willpower," Brown said. "They've got a thrust there that in some respects, though not all, we need to emulate."

In his first two years in office, Brown signed legislation relaxing environmental regulations for infill projects and providing exemptions for certain other developments, and he is seeking major changes to the California Environmental Quality Act.

At the chamber event Wednesday, Brown lamented concerns about the water project extending as far as to the tiny Delta smelt.

When he was governor before, Brown said, "We didn't know there was such a thing as a smelt. ... Now the smelt has probably got a more powerful lobbyist than most of the people in this room."

State Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, said Brown "does want to build stuff" and appears to be "impatient" with regulatory burdens.

It is a frustration Cannella shares. But Cannella, an engineer, is also concerned about the administration's management of major projects in light of its experience with the Bay Bridge.

"We are going to embark on a building program. We're going to build high-speed rail. We're probably going to build tunnels," said Cannella, a member of the Senate's transportation committee. "We have to figure out where things went wrong so that we do a better job when we do that infrastructure."

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.

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