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Legislative Analyst’s Office slams High Speed Rail plans

by Bob Morris, published

Last week, The Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) issued a highly critical report on current High Speed Rail (HSR) plans. The LAO said HSR is threatened by erratic (if not completely non-existent) financing compounded by management problems.

Therefore, the LAO recommends 1) the entire project be shifted from the High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) to the Department of Transportation, 2) plans to build an initial "link to nowhere" in the San Joaquin Valley be reevaluated, and 3) only $7 million of the $185 million in funding requested by Gov. Jerry Brown be approved at this time. I was not able to find anything in the report that was praiseworthy towards the HSRA. Ouch!

LAO specifically noted that the HSRA has no discernible business plan and its ridership projections is, to put it politely, unrealistic. The project was originally expected to cost $43 billion and could end up being double that. Yet, voters only authorized $9.5 billion when Prop 1A passed in 2008. The federal government may (or may not) pony up a few billion more but even with that, HSR is tens of billions short of having the money it needs. This is further complicated by federal requirements that mandate the $3.6 billion Washington has already given be spent on that Central Valley link to nowhere that cannot possibly generate needed revenues and thus will run at a loss. It also must be completed by 2017, say the feds. HSRA said they anticipated no local opposition to it. They were wrong. Agricultural interests are concerned about the location and their blocking of the project means the 2017 deadline may not be met.

For this and other reasons, LAO believes HSRA management is not up to the task and further, may not have the interests of all Californians at heart. That's why they advise that project responsibility be moved to Caltrans, which has decades of experience building huge projects. Perhaps a revamped HSRA would then be a department within Caltrans. Rather scathingly, they think the current HSRA board should be eliminated or modified.  They also believe California should try to get waivers from the government on construction of the Central Valley link and then use the money to build a more worthwhile and highly-traveled link, like from Los Angeles to Anaheim, San Francisco to San Jose, or San Jose to Merced.

For HSR to be viable, it must have sufficient funding, and it must show it can generate substantial revenue. Proponents of HSR and HSRA have demonstrated neither so far. It behooves them to do so now rather than simply yelling that voters authorized it so it must be done. Yes, voters did authorize it, but only for $9.5 billion with the expectation that the rest of the funding would easily be found and that routes would be non-contentious. Neither has happened. The project for all practical purposes is stalled.  If backers of HSR want the project to happen, they need to bring forth a realistic plan now.

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