Report: Strip power from high-speed rail authority

Legislative Analyst's Office urges shifting project to Caltrans, reconsidering Central Valley as starting point for proposed line

California's proposed high-speed-rail system is facing potentially crippling threats from looming federal deadlines and weak oversight by the agency charged with building the project, the state Legislative Analyst's Office concluded in a new report.

The scathing report, which the nonpartisan office released Tuesday morning, recommends stripping the California High-Speed Rail Authority of its decision-making powers and giving the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) oversight over the increasingly controversial project. The Legislative Analyst's Office also concluded that the rail authority's business plan remains deeply flawed; that most of the revenues the agency is banking on to fund the new system are unlikely to materialize; that the project will cost far more than the rail authority's official estimate of $43 billion; and that the rail authority's decision to begin the line in Central Valley is a "big gamble" based on "faulty assumptions."

The report, titled "High-Speed Rail Is at a Critical Juncture," comes as another major blow to a project that voters approved in November 2008 but that has since been plagued by financial uncertainty and scathing criticism from communities along the proposed route. While previous audits had also highlighted flaws in the rail authority's business plan, ridership assumptions and day-to-day operations, the new report goes a step further and argues that the state Legislature should reject the rail authority's funding request for the next fiscal year and halt the project altogether unless federal deadlines are renegotiated and the governance structure for the project is revamped.

"We have concluded that the current governance structure for the project is no longer appropriate and is too weak to ensure that this mega-project is coordinated and managed effectively," the report states. "These changes in governance need to be made soon, in our view, because HSRA has already begun the process to move toward the award of multi-billion dollar construction contracts for the project."

Eric Thronson, the analyst who wrote the report, presents several alternatives to the existing governance structure, which consists of nine appointed board members, a handful of paid staff members and hundreds of consultants. The project, Thronson wrote, could be shifted to Caltrans, an agency with far more oversight and expertise in transportation projects, or moved to a newly created state department dedicated to high-speed rail. Thronson argued in the report that the existing structure gives the rail authority too much autonomy and not enough accountability to the Legislature or the governor.

"The considerable autonomy," Thronson wrote, "does not ensure that the board keeps the overall best interests of the state in mind as it makes critical decisions about the project."

Under the current system, he noted, board members aren't required to have "specific expertise" relating to management of a major construction project. He also pointed out that the agency's board members are not subject to direction by the executive branch or the legislative confirmation process.

"This relative lack of accountability to either the executive or legislative branches creates a risk that the board will pursue its primary mission -- construction of the statewide high-speed rail system – without sufficient regard to other state considerations, such as state fiscal concerns," he wrote.

Of the two proposed alternatives, the report leans in favor of shifting the project to Caltrans. The report recommends that the Legislature pass a bill in the current session making the switch.

The new report also backs up recent claims by rail watchdogs that the rail authority's estimated $43 billion price tag for the rail system is far too low. The segment between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Thronson wrote, is "likely to cost much more." He estimated the cost of the project to be about $67 billion, echoing a similar estimate that was issued in February by the Palo Alto-based group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design.

Palo Alto officials have also grown increasingly skeptical about the rail authority's official projection of the rail line's costs. The city had sent the rail authority a letter in March asking for an updated estimate but did not receive a response.

The rail authority currently has about $5.5 billion on hand in state and federal funds for construction of the rail line and is banking on future contributions from the federal government, private investors and local agencies to help pay for the system. These assumptions are overly optimistic, the new report argues.

The rail authority's 2009 business plan estimates that the project will obtain between $17 billion and $19 billion in federal funds. So far, it has received $3.6 billion, and the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives has opposed making additional appropriations for high-speed rail.

"The HSRA indicates that without additional significant federal support beyond that provided to date, the project cannot be completed," the report states. "Given the federal government's current financial situation and the current focus in Washington on reducing federal spending, it is uncertain if any further funding for the high-speed rail program will become available."

Voters approved $9 billion in bonds for the new system in 2008 when they passed Proposition 1A. The new report estimates that if the state were to sell all the rail bonds, the total principal and interest costs for repaying the debt would be $18 billion to $20 billion.

Thronson also criticized the rail authority's decision in December to begin construction of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line in Central Valley -- a decision that was driven largely by input from the Federal Railroad Administration. Given the possibility that the entire rail line will never be fully completed, the Legislative Analyst's Office report urges further consideration of other segments as possible starting points, including San Francisco-to-San Jose, Los Angeles-to-Anaheim and San Jose-Merced.

A high-speed rail system at any of these three segments could provide "greater benefit to the state's overall transportation system even if the rest of the high-speed rail system were not completed," Thronson wrote.

"Largely as a result of these federal deadlines and requirements, HSRA decided in December 2010 to begin the construction of the statewide system within the Central Valley," the report states. "This decision by HSRA, however, represents a big gamble that additional monies will eventually become available from federal government or other sources to connect the Central Valley line to other major urban areas of California."

The Legislative Analyst's Office report recommends that the Legislature rejects the rail authority's 2011-12 budget request for $185 million for project development and appropriate only $7 million for the agency. The money would be used to identify the top two options for beginning construction based on criteria such as cost, "statewide benefit of a particular segment," estimated ridership and revenue potential.

Roelof van Ark, the CEO of the rail authority, issued a statement in response to the report saying the LAO's recommendations will be "thoroughly reviewed in the context of our mandate to operate under the provisions of Proposition 1A." He also said he believes the project has been "successful thus far because it has strived to operate more like a private business than a typical government bureaucracy."

"I hope to work with the Legislature to come up with solutions that benefit all Californians and allow us to move forward with the successful completion of the state's high-speed rail system -- and we hope that this report at least encourages healthy discussion towards that goal," van Ark said in the statement.

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Like this comment
Posted by dick givens
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on May 11, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Maybe we should be happy that it is mismanaged-maybe it won't get done.

Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on May 11, 2011 at 2:20 pm

Good coverage, Gennady. Thanks for such thoroughness.

The rail authority list of shortcomings is enormous. They are arrogant. They are untruthful. They are incompetent. They are procrastinators. They are dishonest. They are politically corrupt. The are financially corrupt. There are other failings that will crop up, but this list is a good start.

This is not my personal opinion only. There is a documented track record substantiated by a number of government agencies, the most recent being the Legislative Analyst's Office, which had issued a prior, equally damning report some time ago. The State Legislature itself has been putting out critical reports since before the 2008 elections. The State Auditor, the State Inspector General and the CHSRA peer review committee have all issued critical reports on the rail authority. And, I'm not citing non-government sources of criticism, only the state government ones.

As it happens, the Inspector General of the US Department of Transportation is also fully aware of this situation and is maintaining a case book and number for this problem, which continues to be under their observation.

There will be considerable further examination of the meaning of the LAO report. Which criticisms are actionable? What possible actions can the Legislature take that are also politically acceptable? At what point will even the most ardent Democratic politicians realize that this project is much more an anchor and much less a sail? There is an embarrassment factor that can easily surface at election time in 2012; will enough candidates understand that and act decisively now, or wait for the facts to hit the fan at the later and more importune time?

Let me say here that I'm not a fan of the current batch of legislation going through the pipeline, or some of the recommendations made by the LAO Report. I'm talking about taking the responsibility for the HSR project out of the hands of the CHSRA Board and turning it over to the CALTRANS/ Department of Transportation. This appears to have great appeal for many who have objected to the rail project, mostly based on the inadequacy of the rail authority. That's not good enough.

For me the reason for rejecting this bureaucratic change is the larger question of whether to build inter-city high-speed rail; should California be doing this at all?

No, is my answer, for a number of reasons.

A. The required development funds will be so staggeringly high that there can be no justification for this project on any cost/benefit basis. The costs to taxpayers will be vast and endless.

B. The state does not need supplementary inter-city passenger transit modalities, especially if they are of the premium, luxury, first-class kind that characterizes high-speed rail. The state should be fixing what's broken, and there's no shortage of infrastructure, including transit, that requires repair or replacement.

C. There are other, far more pressing and worth-while investments that should be made with any available funds, particularly in a state in the present fiscal crisis. Slashing education while funding this project is outrageous. It's also economically stupid.

D. Even with a competent administrative bureaucracy, this is a government project that will serve far too few people for far too much cost, both development costs and operating costs.

E. It is not, in any way, imaginative, strategic, creative, innovative, and in every other regard anything like what America is capable of; see Silicon Valley as an example of that. It will be bought off the shelves of other countries. By the time of its completion, it will be as obsolete as Amtrak is now. Break-through transit technologies will emerge from other countries, not our own. Hence, it's a lousy investment for us, unless we seize the leadership in the transportation technology equivalent of computers.

F. Since it is not a private sector for-profit business like the air carriers, it will require enormous and permanent subsidies even as it serves too few people, and those are the members of the social/economic class that requires the least amount of government support.

For more extensive discussion of high-speed rail and its discontents, see this blog:
Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Steve
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 11, 2011 at 4:29 pm

$67 Billion! Holy cow! That's enough to buy over 2 million Priuses or 1.5 million Chevy Volts. Or use it to provide a 50% subsidy and double those numbers.
Getting that many fuel-efficient cars on the road would go much farther in reducing oil imports & meeting carbon-reduction targets than HSR would in 50 years (I'm guessing).
Not to mention all those jobs that would be created in this country to produce them.
Just to provide an alternative to think about

Like this comment
Posted by Tim Wulff
a resident of another community
on May 13, 2011 at 9:45 am


Thank you for being well-informed and willing to express yourself.

Your summary is devastating.

If I may add, there is a broader context: The US is busy degrading the value of its currency through excessive debt. The effects of this process are currently evident at the grocery store and the gas pump. These costs are not going to go down in the near or long term. Peak oil has been passed. It is my maintenance that this is not your normal business cycle variation. Borrowing money for non-productive activities has the long term effect of degrading the dollar and reducing the wealth of all who hold it. This effect impacts the poorest first (part of the credit/debt/inflation plan of the central bank). So effectively what we're talking about is borrowing money now to give to special interests building the infrastructure and enhance the careers of every politician in sight for doing so at the expense of the poor and the rest of us who use dollars.

Plug your analysis behind this and you see why I characterize this project as nothing less than madness.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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