Crazy train

Lack of land acquisitions, billions in cost overruns make some lawmakers trouble one of Jerry Brown’s largest infrastructure projects

By Scott Thomas Anderson

Just days before Jerry’s Brown’s proposed Delta twin tunnels were put on indefinite hold, the outgoing governor’s other legacy project, high-speed rail, came under withering fire from the California State Auditor and members of two legislative committees.

The recent state auditor’s report determined that flawed decision-making and poor contract management by the California High Speed Rail Authority has led to billions in cost overruns. The project currently only has $12.7 billion of secured funding, though the estimated price tag for its line from Los Angeles to San Francisco is now $77 billion.

The auditor criticized the rail authority’s decision to immediately break ground after voter approval in 2008, despite having no realistic plan for land acquisitions. Worse yet, the auditor’s team found that the rail authority’s mismanagement had resulted in at least $2.2. billion in unnecessary expenses, and might even result in the federal government “clawing back” some $3.5 billion that it’s granted the project if deadlines aren’t met.

On November 29, the state auditor and rail authority leaders appeared before a joint meeting of the Legislative Audit Committee and Assembly Transportation Committee.

“I, along with a majority of California voters, initially supported the dream of our great state building the nation’s first bullet train,” said South Bay Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi. “However, many California voters have become disillusioned as the dream has become a nightmare of cost overruns and project delays.”

State Auditor Elaine Howle echoed those sentiments.

“I think the public, the legislature and the state of California should be very concerned,” Howle told committee members.

South Delta Assemblyman Jim Frazier noted that he’d previously held numerous meetings with the rail authority and felt blindsided by the auditor’s report.

“Unfortunately, these audit results make me question whether my faith has been very much misplaced,” Frazier stressed.

Assemblyman Jim Patterson, who represents the Fresno area where the rail authority is currently building tracks, was especially critical of project officials.

“To date we have spent billions of dollars putting up concrete that’s going to run a rump railroad from just outside Madera to just outside of Bakersfield,” Patterson said. “The audit demonstrates that this project is, in fact, collapsing.”

Tom Richard, vice chairman of the rail authority’s board of directors, defended the decision to break ground without having a master plan to acquire land across the state. He said the move brought badly needed jobs to the Central Valley at the height of the recession.

“We believed the benefits of putting people back to work at a time of high unemployment outweighed the risks of additional costs that might be incurred,” Richard testified.

Patterson had a quick response, saying, “What I hear in that is a defense of what our auditor says is indefensible.”

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