Mercury News: Report: Calif. rail project faces serious concerns
SACRAMENTO, Calif.—A panel charged with reviewing plans for California's $43 billion high-speed rail project says planners need to answer serious questions about the cost, business model and expected ridership of the system before the Legislature approves construction.
"It is no exaggeration to say that the next few months may offer the last chance for the governor and Legislature to assess and influence the overall plans for the project," before irrevocable construction begins, says the report by the California High-Speed Rail Authority Peer Review Group.
The first phase of the project is scheduled to start in September 2012 in the Central Valley. Critics want to start in more populated areas of Southern or Northern California in case the money runs out before the full system is finished.
The six-member peer review group submitted its report in response to a request from lawmakers who were concerned about a scathing May review of the project by the state Legislative Analyst's Office. That analysis recommended lawmakers essentially suspend the project and request more spending leeway from federal officials, as well as shift responsibility for the project to the state Department of Transportation.
The group rejected both ideas but emphasized the crucial need for a detailed business plan that the California High-Speed Rail Authority is due to submit in October.
Rail authority spokesman Jeffrey Barker said Friday the agency is on track to answer all the concerns raised in the LAO's report when it submits that plan, and that lawmakers will have ample time to review it before deciding whether to sell $10 billion in voter-approved bonds.
"We've been very vocal about the fact that there are huge challenges ahead for the high-speed rail project," Barker said Friday. "We've said we need to advocate for more funding, we've talked about structural issues and the need for more staff, we've talked about the need to assure we have all the right tools within state government to have a public-private agency. ... None of this stuff is new or shocking or we're in disagreement with."
Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on High-Speed Rail, said the report from the internal group puts additional pressure on the rail authority to present a credible plan that includes plans to bring in private-sector partners that will eventually be responsible for running trains on the track.
"The high-speed rail authority, they've got to present a document that everybody buys off on or it will be a crisis," Lowenthal said Friday.
The state is under pressure to spend $3.5 billion in federal funds and finish construction of the first phase of the project by 2017.
"Before we put a shovel in the ground, before you do any of this, a lot of questions have to be asked and answered," he said.
The report, submitted last week, notes that later phases of the project rely almost entirely on federal, state and local money that might never materialize.
"This poses the clear risk that whatever is started will not be finished and whatever is finished may have only limited utility," said the report.
Lowenthal urged Gov. Jerry Brown, a fellow Democrat, to get heavily involved in the project, including lobbying the federal government for future funding and to ease up on the deadlines.
The independent review panel of experts from transportation, business and other sectors was established as part of Proposition 1A, the 2008 voter-approved measure that authorized the state to sell bonds to begin construction of a high-speed rail line in California. The ultimate vision of the project is an 800-mile system linking the state's major cities with trains running at up to 220 mph.