The Daily Democrat | By Matt Rexroad | November 27, 2017 –
Can California still successfully take on big projects or is that part of our history already over? As high-profile infrastructure projects ranging from high speed rail to the Delta Tunnels face an uncertain future, that’s a critical question that lies before our next Governor.
We were once known for ambitious projects like the California State Water Project which transformed the state and allowed for rapid development in the Central Valley and Southern California.
Today, it’s extremely unlikely that a project that size and scope could ever be built. If California can’t succeed any longer in taking on huge infrastructure needs, it will have huge implications for the future of the state.
Gov. Brown has taken on no shortage of ambitious infrastructure projects. All of them continue to face numerous setbacks. In addition to the two most high profile and controversial — high speed rail and the Delta Tunnels — the Central Valley Flood Protection Project is a major endeavor with uncertainty in budget or viability. While I have serious concerns about aspects of each of these infrastructure developments, and some are ill-advised to the point where they should not be built, there is no changing that a substantial amount of money and time has already been poured into them.
The bigger question is whether state government can pull them off at all in a fiscally responsible manner.
Much has changed since the Golden Era of infrastructure projects of the 1950s and ’60s. During this period, the state’s water system was modernized and made us the nation’s largest agricultural producer. Highways were built to develop our transportation system and paved the way for economic development that led us to be the sixth largest economy in the world. There is no doubt California would look very different if they had never been built.
However, if attempted now, getting environmental approvals and overcoming political opposition from interests affected by these kinds of projects would be a herculean if not impossible task. This has been one of the biggest hurdles for high speed rail and the Delta Tunnels as lawsuit after lawsuit has been brought against them.
Keeping projects on schedule and on budget also seems out of reach for today’s government officials. When the first Bay Bridge was built between Oakland and San Francisco, it was completed early and below budget. Its modern replacement blew past its original cost estimate of $250 million to a final total of $6.5 billion and was years late. Another major and high profile project, the Oroville Dam spillway saw costs nearly double from $275 million to $500 million in less than a year. A similar pattern has emerged with high speed rail and the Delta Tunnels projects which regularly push back schedules and announce increased cost projections and budget overruns.
This is so common now that the public just assumes projects will overshoot their budgets. Every time this happens, confidence in government officials to pull off major projects takes a hit. California is not just famous for its pristine beaches and great weather, but also for its red-tape and bureaucracy. Unfortunately, many of the state laws and policies that built this reputation also hurt our ability to take on mega projects and are a major contributing factor to spiraling cost overruns and schedule delays.
Overcoming these challenges will squarely fall on California’s next governor. The outcome of the state’s high-profile megaprojects has incredible stakes for the future of meeting infrastructure needs. If high speed rail or the Delta Tunnels fail, it could very well mark the end of an era of doing big things. If a governor as influential as Brown has failed to overcome the challenges of modern, large infrastructure projects, it’s hard to see the next governor having any more success.
As Brown retires to his ranch in Colusa County, Sites Reservoir, the public works project many of us most desire will be just a short distance away and subject to the same state bureaucracy that is currently flailing about. Whether we can chart a course for meeting future generations’ needs is an important and unanswered question. Right now, it’s not looking very optimistic.
Matt Rexroad is a Yolo County Supervisor from Woodland.