Gov. Brown vetoes bill aimed at improving bullet train oversight

Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday rebuffed lawmakers’ efforts to subject California’s $64-billion bullet train project to increased financial scrutiny, vetoing a bill that had gained bipartisan support. 

The bill, introduced by Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno), would have adopted into law two key recommendations from the Legislative Analyst’s Office: requiring the state rail authority to provide detailed cost, scope and schedule information about each segment of the project and to disclose how those segments would be paid for. 

It was among the few pieces of legislation that attracted bipartisan support over the last five years, and the veto left Patterson furious.

“If this project keeps going forward without the necessary oversight, it will continue to collapse,” Patterson, the former mayor of Fresno, said. “It is already in the process of collapsing in front of our eyes. It is a make-believe project.”

Brown said the bill, AB 2847, was unnecessary.

“As with other projects of this magnitude, state law requires strict standards of accountability and transparency, and I have every expectation that the authority will meet these high standards,” Brown said in his veto announcement.

On Wednesday, Brown also signed a bill that would help the state rail authority give $819 million to Caltrain to convert the Bay Area commuter rail system from diesel to electric power, which ultimately could be used by future bullet trains.

The authority’s legal standing to provide that money out of the $9-billion bond act for the rail system that voters approved in 2008 has been in question.

Assemblyman Kevin Mullin (D-South San Francisco) introduced the bill, calling it an attempt to clarify the intent of voters over the exact meaning of technical wording in the bond act.

The complex bill is likely headed for a legal challenge.

Stuart Flashman, an attorney representing a coalition of groups opposing the project, sent a letter to Department of Finance Director Michael Cohen last week, asserting that it would be illegal to modify the language of a bond act and that his group planned to file suit.

The letter said that Cohen would be named a defendant if he approves a plan to spend the bond money.

The two pieces of legislation make clear that the rail project remains a political firecracker, despite the start of construction of a series of bridges, viaducts and trenches in Fresno.

The Patterson bill was adopted by both the Assembly and Senate, facing no opposition. It may have presented the authority with a task that was impossible to meet, since its own business plan shows it does not have the funding for each segment of the project.

An initial operating segment from San Jose to Wasco would cost about $21 billion. The authority hopes to pay for that with a combination of bonds, federal grants and proceeds from greenhouse gas fees. But those greenhouse gas fees are coming up well short of expectations, and a quarter-billion-dollar gap has opened this year. Beyond the initial segment, there is a $43.5-billion shortfall in the amount of money identified as available to complete the system.

Rail authority chief Dan Richard has said repeatedly this year that it should not be necessary to specify where all of the money will come from, noting that backers of the project were surprised by some sources of the money now available. He said there’s no reason to doubt that unanticipated sources will provide additional money.

The second bill for electrification of the Caltrain system also raised concerns that the high speed rail project may become a series of disconnected projects. After Caltrain lobbied for additional money from the rail authority, Southern California asked for more money to prepare for a future rail line.

And the Central Valley is adamant in protecting about $6 billion in construction for rail structures from Madera to Wasco, though so far there is no money to connect them to other parts of the rail system.

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

Twitter: @RVartabedian

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