North-South Rivalry Alive Over Brown’s Big Projects

Joel Fox
Editor of Fox & Hounds and President of the Small Business Action Committee

California’s historic north/south rivalry appears to be writing a new chapter over Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed big legacy projects: the bullet train and delta tunnels.

The rivalry is sure to heat up over both a report that the California High-Speed Rail Authority is reconsidering running the bullet train route north to San Jose before heading south to Burbank as was originally planned, while efforts intensify to stop the tunnels and prevent more water flowing south.

In the Los Angeles Times account of the possible switch of the rail plan, reporter Ralph Vartbedian noted, “With the project already behind schedule and facing estimates of higher costs, the Bay Area option could offer a faster, less risky and cheaper option. Getting even a portion of the project built early would help its political survival.”

The key phrase here is “political survival.” The train is facing mounting pressure from citizen lawsuits, financial uncertainties, and flagging support from the general public. Suggested routes for the train from the Central Valley to the San Fernando Valley have run into hot resistance. There is urgency for the authority to get something done, to get the project up and running so that it would seem imprudent and unreasonable to stop it.

Yet, the threat to undo the project is there. A ballot measure redirecting bullet train money to water projects is in the offing and the idea enjoys some support in a recent poll —certainly more support than the train itself has seen in polls.

While plenty of Californians—north and south—object to the bullet train being built at all, Southern California transportation advocates are incensed at the possible change in plans favoring the north.

Meanwhile, the other big Jerry Brown legacy project, the delta tunnels, to bring water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta to the central and southern parts of the state is also facing opposition.

An initiative already qualified for the ballot would require voter approval of revenue bonds over $2 billion. There is no secret the proponents of this measure are taking aim at a major revenue source to build the tunnels. Revenue bonds, unlike General Obligation bonds that are backed by taxpayers, do not require a vote and are paid by the users of a development. Revenue bonds are considered to be part of the financing structure for the delta tunnels.

Some northern California legislators propose having voters decide if they want the tunnels. Many supporters of the idea think a statewide vote would scuttle the project.

Nearly 35 years ago an effort to construct a peripheral canal to bring water from the delta south was defeated at an election. Southern voters supported the canal but it was overwhelming rejected by voters in the north.

Which brings up important differences in the north-south rivalry.

Despite Southern California being the home of a larger proportion of the electorate, northern Californians vote in greater percentages. That gives the north a political advantage. One reflection of that advantage can be seen in those who hold statewide offices. Of the eight statewide elected constitutional offices, all are filled by northerners except for Treasurer John Chiang.

Like professional sports teams—think Giants and Dodgers– public policy too can produce bitter rivalry and loyal supporters by dint of geography.

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