Jerry Brown has a vision, or a hope, or perhaps just a fingers-crossed wish.
It is that when he finally departs from the governorship in January 2019, construction will be unstoppably underway on two immense public works projects.
Giant machines will be eating their way beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, boring the twin tunnels that would close a gap in the State Water Plan that his father launched nearly 60 years earlier.
Meanwhile, crews will be completing 130 miles of railroad track down the San Joaquin Valley for the initial segment of a north-south bullet train Brown first proposed 40-plus years earlier.
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These are not personal legacies, he insists, merely what California needs to prosper sustainably during the remainder of the 21st century. And pushing them from the drawing board into physical reality, he says, is just doing the job he was elected to do in 2010.
Never mind that the tunnels are supported by virtually no one except construction unions and two giant water districts whose financial commitments are growing shakier by the day because many clients don’t see enough benefit to offset the immense cost. Never mind that federal environmental regulators have branded the tunnels as destructive to the estuary’s fragile habitat.
“I’m here to deal with a challenge, which I didn’t invent,” Brown insisted in a recent presentation to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, one of the tunnels’ major sponsors.
The other big sponsor, Westlands Water District, has spent millions of its farmer-members’ money on tunnel plans, but has told the state it won’t cough up any more money until the project’s uncertainties are resolved.
Never mind, one supposes, that the bullet train bonds were passed with a very slight majority, based on financial and operational projections that have since vanished. Never mind that polls now indicate Californians no longer want the project, seeing it as an expensive boondoggle.
The bullet train project was to begin in the San Joaquin Valley because, at the time it was assumed, support would be easy to obtain in an economically depressed region.
It turned out, however, that there is very strong opposition in the valley, particularly among farmers. That opposition has cost the High-Speed Rail Authority many months of delays.
Assuming the San Joaquin Valley segment is completed – without electrification or rolling stock – the next stretch would link Palmdale with Burbank, but as officials opened discussions along the route, they found even stronger opposition.
Local officials and homeowner groups see the train as a noisy and perhaps dangerous imposition. Residents of working-class communities see it as an environmental injustice.
To avoid further confrontation, bullet train planners may have to bypass the overland route they would prefer, roughly along Highway 14, and tunnel beneath the mountains that separate the Antelope Valley from the San Fernando Valley.
That would add time and expense to a project that’s already lacking more than a tiny fraction of its cost.
Meanwhile, a bill that’s passed the House of Representatives would claw back even the relatively small federal bullet train grant because the state has failed to pay its contractual share.
If the project stalls out, Brown will have a legacy – a train to nowhere.