Dan Walters

Was Jerry Brown kidding, or is he worried about legacy projects?

Jerry Brown and his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, this month jointly celebrated the 10th anniversary of California’s war against greenhouse gas emissions.

Brown pointed out that Schwarzenegger not only signed the 2006 bill, but also championed two immense public works projects that Brown has adopted as his own.

“Arnold, thanks for being for climate change, cap and trade, the tunnels project, high-speed rail and all the other unpopular issues I’m saddled with,” Brown kidded Schwarzenegger.

However, maybe he was kidding on the square, revealing worries that boring two huge water tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and running a bullet train up and down the state may be doomed.

The tunnels, officially dubbed “California Water Fix,” are a new version of the “peripheral canal” that Brown pushed during his first governorship, but voters rejected in a referendum. Either would bypass the environmentally precarious Delta and deliver Sacramento River water to the head of the California Aqueduct near Tracy for shipment as far south as San Diego.

The bullet train would, if fully built, carry passengers along a roughly parallel path from Northern California to as far south as San Diego. Advocates contend, without much factual basis, that it would divert huge numbers of travelers from cars or crowded airports.

The two projects also have similar – and perhaps ultimately fatal – problems of declining popularity and lack of secure financing.

The tunnels are unpopular among Northern Californians, who see them as a scheme to take more water. And although Brown and other supporters say it would improve the Delta’s environment, most environmental groups are leery.

The project’s biggest problem, however, is financing. In theory, the money would come from bonds repaid by downstate water users, including the huge Westlands Water District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, but neither has made a firm commitment.

During a profanity-laced meeting of the Metropolitan board this month, San Diego County’s demand for data on costs was rebuffed. Meanwhile, an anti-tunnel group, Restore the Delta, obtained a 2015 cost analysis commissioned by the state that concluded the project pencils out only if the federal government covers a third of the nearly $16 billion cost.

Although voters narrowly approved a $9.95 billion bond issue for the bullet train in 2008, that’s a fraction of its $60-plus billion cost, and since then, polls indicate it has lost popular support. The federal government has provided a few billion more dollars to build a starter line in the San Joaquin Valley, but after that, prospects are dim.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s hope for private investment has not materialized. In desperation, Brown and legislators gave the project a quarter of the revenue from quarterly sales of carbon emission allowances.

Officials have speculated that the cap-and-trade funds could underwrite a multi-billion-dollar construction loan. But recent auctions have produced virtually nothing, the program expires in 2020 unless reauthorized, and the uncertainty has put the loan hope on indefinite hold.

And then there’s Proposition 53, which would require voter approval of any state revenue bonds of $2 billion or more. It could doom both Brown legacy projects – which explains why he’s pumped $1.7 million into the campaign against it.

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