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Audit request for bullet train now includes key Democrat committee chair

Audit request for bullet train now includes key Democrat committee chair
Ironworkers tie rebar for the walls of an undercrossing connected to the high speed rail project at Tulare Street in downtown Fresno on Dec. 19. (California High-Speed Rail Authority)

Pressure for an audit of the California bullet train program increased Tuesday when Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose), chairman of the state Senate transportation committee, joined Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) in a letter asking for a comprehensive review.

The letter is the first time that a leading Democrat has lent support to an audit since the state auditor last looked at the high-speed rail project in 2012.

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The request comes just a week after the rail authority disclosed that its main consultant, WSP, was forecasting that the cost of building the first 119 miles of rail line in the Central Valley would jump to $10.6 billion from the original estimate of $6 billion. Construction is running about seven years behind schedule.

The increases are likely to drain funds that were intended for later construction of segments that would ultimately link San Francisco to Los Angeles. The official cost estimate for the overall project has been $64 billion, but that could change when the rail authority issues its 2018 business plan.

On Tuesday, the rail authority sent a letter to the Legislature's leadership saying it would need an extra 30 days to complete that business plan, noting that its new chief executive, Brian Kelly, and others would need more time. The delay would result in the Legislature getting the business plan June 1 rather than the May 1 legal deadline for the biennial report, the authority said.

In their joint letter to Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance), who chairs the joint audit committee, Beall and Patterson asked for an examination of contract costs, change orders, economic effect to communities, the use of small businesses and environmental outcomes that result from the project's "green construction practices."

The Beall and Patterson letter says the Legislature is responsible for making sure the project "is on an effective path toward successful completion." Beall has supported the rail project but has expressed some concerns about its execution and called an oversight hearing a year ago to take a closer look after the Federal Railroad Administration issued a confidential risk analysis that cited rising costs and a lagging schedule.

In a statement Tuesday, Beall cited the many benefits of the project. "I have always believed that the state must look for efficiencies and savings that can speed up HSR construction and cut costs," he said. "Today, we are asking for a new set of eyes — the state auditor — to look at the project and identify ideas to lower costs and accelerate construction.''

Patterson, the former mayor of Fresno, has been an outspoken critic.

"Either the High-Speed Rail Authority is grossly inept or they knew of these problems and covered them up," he said Tuesday. "There is only one way to get to the bottom of this and it is with an independent nonpartisan audit."

Rail authority Chairman Dan Richard said in a statement that the program has been audited over the years internally, as well as at the federal and state levels, and that the authority will "work cooperatively with the committee to fully address the issues that are raised."

Patterson asked for an audit last year, but the request was denied by the audit committee. In 2016, Sen. Andy Vidak (R-Hanford) also asked for an audit that was denied.

State Auditor Elaine Howle audited the program in 2010 and 2012, citing a range of concerns about inadequate planning, rising costs, questionable ridership estimates and future operating costs.

Follow me on Twitter @rvartabedian

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