CALIFORNIA

State Senate committee chairman plans oversight hearings on California's bullet train

The Democratic chairman of the state Senate transportation committee said he plans to hold oversight hearings on the bullet train to examine its management performance, construction schedules and cost estimates.

The hearings, chaired by Sen. James Beall Jr. of San Jose, would provide the first significant legislative oversight of the project in four years, during which it has fallen far behind schedule and concerns have mounted over its costs and other uncertainties.

Beall said his objective is to find a way to accelerate the construction schedule to reduce costs. The lawmaker said the hearings will be called soon after the state rail authority issues its 2016 business plan, which is expected in coming weeks.

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"The oversight will be much more extensive," said Beall, who has been involved in state transportation issues for decades. "Don't doubt that we will instill some fiscal oversight of the high-speed rail."

The business plan will lay out the state's latest vision for how it will fund, build and eventually operate the 220-mph trains. It will be crucial to answering concerns that have grown in the last two years as expected construction in the Central Valley fell well short of plans owing to the state's failure to obtain adequate parcels of land. At the same time, the state has not yet attracted private investors as it had hoped.

The delays and funding shortfalls pose major obstacles to its existing plan, adopted in 2014, to complete an initial operating segment from Burbank to Merced by 2022. That link will require boring about 36 miles of tunnels through geologically complex mountains, building as many as six stations, erecting new high-voltage electrical lines and constructing a heavy maintenance facility.

The initial operating segment is the proposed foundation block that would enable the state to attract private investors and complete the 500-mile system.

The hearings will mark a sharp increase in the political oversight in Sacramento. Gov. Jerry Brown and Democrats have not scrutinized the project despite mounting questions from construction and rail experts and Republicans in Sacramento and Washington.

A joint state legislative committee last week rejected a proposal to authorize an audit by the California state auditor, who has not examined the project for four years. The last audit raised warnings about a wide range of potential risks and recommended the project needed additional oversight.

A new audit was requested by Sen. Andy Vidak (R-Hanford), who says the Legislature's refusal has been the direct result of enormous pressure on Democrats from Brown and the party's leadership, afraid that negative findings would jeopardize the project.

"It is the biggest program in the United States, and the refusal to have an audit is ridiculous," Vidak said. "We wanted this audit to show the waste and abuse of this program. The inflated costs are outrageous."

Spokesmen for Brown did not respond directly to Vidak's assertion, but said in an email, "We remain strongly committed to this project...and support the Authority's effort to modernize transportation, and do so transparently and with continued public input."

Jeff Morales, chief executive of the rail authority, said last week in a letter to Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Carson), chairman of the audit committee, that the project is already subject to strong oversight. The committee denied the audit request on a straight party line vote. Gipson declined a request to be interviewed.

Despite the rejection of an independent audit, lawmakers are taking steps to increase their own attention to the project.

In addition to Beall's hearing, an Assembly budget subcommittee on transportation will hold a hearing next week, an apparent follow-up to a pledge by Speaker Toni Atkins to hold a hearing in response to an unpublished cost estimate that showed the cost of building an initial operating segment had jumped from $31 billion to $40 billion.

The Times disclosed the cost estimate in October, noting that it was the product of two years of study by a team of engineers from the state's principal contractor, Parsons Brinckerhoff. The estimate was not adopted in the 2014 business plan, however. Instead, the state stuck with a lower cost estimate from 2012. California High Speed Rail Authority officials have dismissed the cost estimate as only a "draft."

The Assembly hearing is scheduled to include testimony by Morales and rail authority Chairman Dan Richard.

Also testifying will be Louis Thompson, chairman of a peer review panel mandated under the 2008 bullet train bond act. Thompson has recommended that the Legislature "consider the creation of a special unit in the Legislative Analysts Office or elsewhere with the resources and continuity to keep an eye on the project continuously."

He said he would reiterate that recommendation next week.

Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno), a member of the transportation budget subcommittee, said he intends to question whether the entire project can be completed for the advertised $68 billion. So far, the Democratic leadership has blocked any serious examination of the project's challenges, he said.

"It has been a white wash and a rubber-stamp look," Patterson said. "I want to drill down on the limits of the state's authority. It needs to be put through a significant wringer."

In Washington, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), chairman of the House rail subcommittee, said he plans to convene hearings this year, though a date has not been set. After The Times disclosed the Parsons Brinckerhoff cost estimate, a dozen members of Congress wrote a letter to the company demanding that it release the document.

"We have long warned that the authority is not being honest with the public about the true costs of constructing high speed rail in California," Denham and the other Republicans said. "It is alarming that the authority's lead consultant would raise warnings with the authority that would subsequently be hidden from the public."

California voters in 2008 approved initial bond funding for the high speed system. At the time, the costs were estimated at $33 billion, less than half the current estimate. Since then, as costs rose the project was scaled back at both ends, with planners sharply reducing train speeds from Anaheim to Los Angeles in the south and San Jose to San Francisco in the north.

Public opinion polls over the last three years have found that support has flagged as costs have risen.

A new poll by Stanford University's Hoover Institution, released last week, found that 53% of voters want the opportunity to stop the bullet train and redirect funds to water projects.

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Despite the public concern, Brown has held his ranks together to support the biggest program of his administration. But some divisions have appeared among Democrats in recent months.

Sen. Richard Roth (D-Riverside) is now opposed to the project, said Charles Dalldorf, Roth's chief of staff.

"There is no direct benefit to his district," Dalldorf said. "He hears about it almost every time he makes an appearance in the district."

Assemblywoman Patty Lopez, responding to an outpouring of anger over the train's possible route through her low-income minority community in the San Fernando Valley, said last month that she was no longer supporting the project.

Patterson said he suspects that Democratic members have lost faith in the project and are just biding time until Brown leaves office in 2018, a view that some legislative staffers say may accurately represent the views of some members.

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 20, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Bullet train project to get review - Lawmaker's hearings will be the first major legislative oversight of operations in 4 years." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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