After the California State Auditor released a report on the California High Speed Rail Authority last week, one local legislator no longer supports the creation of the state’s first-ever bullet train while another believes in staying the course.
Claiming that an early start was necessary to comply with federal grant requirements, the Authority began construction on the Central Valley segment of the project in 2013 without purchasing all of the necessary land, relocating utilities or obtaining agreements with local governments or other railroad operators, the report stated.
This led to more than $600 million in changes to construction contracts, according to the report, and the Authority expects that another $1.6 billion will be needed to complete construction that is already in progress.
Despite the audit’s findings, Sate Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, voiced her continued support for the project in an email to the News-Sentinel on the grounds that it will benefit California’s Central Valley.
“Audits are important because they help to identify deficiencies, therefore allowing those in charge the opportunity to correct identified problems,” Galgiani said. “So I welcome the audit of the High Speed Rail Project. But I don’t think we should, in hindsight, discount the enormous pressure the Rail Authority was under to access federal funding, which led to construction starting before all planning was completed. It was a difficult balancing act to say the least.”
Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, did not share Galgiani’s optimism.
“Last week’s findings on high-speed rail are very troubling. We have a fiduciary responsibility to our taxpayers to spend their tax dollars wisely,” Cooper said in an email. “That being said, I support increased transportation options for Californians, but this project as it is now, is not what voters approved in 2008 and I can no longer support its continuation.”
While the Authority was created in 1996, voters did not approve funding for the project until 2008 when they passed a general obligation bond of approximately $10 billion, the report said. The project’s estimated cost was approximately $40 billion in 2008, and has continued to rise since then.
“Although the Authority has secured and identified funding of over $28 billion that it expects will be sufficient to complete initial segments, that funding will not be enough to connect those segments or finish the rest of the system — estimated to cost over $77 billion,” the audit said.
The Authority also estimated that completion dates will be pushed back to May 2022, the report showed, seven months away from the federal government’s December 2022 grant deadline.
“If the Authority does not complete the construction by this deadline, it may need to repay $3.5 billion in federal funds, $2.6 billion of which it reports it has already spent,” the report said. “To meet the current schedule, the Authority will need to ensure that construction proceeds twice as fast as it has thus far.”
While the original plans called for a “dedicated high-speed rail system,” the Authority has changed its plans since 2012 and now plans to share — or “blend” with — existing transit infrastructure such as local rail services on the San Francisco Peninsula and in Los Angeles as well as a freight corridor between San Jose and Gilroy.
“Although blending is less costly, it subjects high-speed trains to lower speed limits and may require sharing time on the tracks with other rail operators,” the audit said.
The Authority acknowledged the risks involved in its decision to begin construction early in a written statement, but maintained that doing so allowed them to utilize federal grant funds that otherwise may not have been available.
“We are moving swiftly to fully implement the recommendations of the California State Auditor which will constitute important steps to assure that we effectively deliver the 21st century high-speed rail system that Californians require as we grow to 50 million people by mid-century,” the Authority said.