Bullet train just a blur in California governor's race

Experts warn against California governor candidates' lack of discussion about bullet train project

At $68 billion, California's bullet train is the nation's largest infrastructure project and arguably Gov. Jerry Brown's biggest initiative. Even so, it received just a few words earlier this year in his State of the State address. It's also playing little more than a bit role in the gubernatorial race — relegated to periodic sound bites, sharp attacks and glossy promises.

Neither Brown nor his Republican opponent, Neel Kashkari, has delved publicly into the details of high-speed rail, including the complex construction plan, looming technical challenges or possible funding shortfalls.

That lack of substantial dialogue reflects a broader inattention that some political analysts and engineering experts warn could have long-term consequences.

"From a purely tactical standpoint, it might be a smart approach," said USC political expert Dan Schnur. "If [Brown] doesn't shine a light on it, it doesn't draw as much attention if it runs into trouble."

The motivation to avoid focusing on what could go wrong is understandable, particularly for proponents of the project, said Robert Bea, a UC Berkeley civil engineering professor and a pioneer in the field of risk analysis. "We want to keep everything looking good and smelling nice."

But failing to engage in a robust public airing of emerging technical and financial issues on huge engineering projects can compound problems, or lead to unwelcome surprises if they become more difficult and costly to manage, Bea said.

The bullet train is central to Brown's vision for California's future. He compares it to the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge and the State Water Project, although in sheer scale and cost, the high-speed rail line is bigger than those historic public works investments.

"I want you to think about those who built the cathedrals of Europe," he told a crowd of supporters, including a dozen union members in hard hats, when he signed a $6-billion appropriation for the project in 2012. "First it was the son and then the grandson. They had a vision. It wasn't about … self-gratification. It was about sacrifice."

Brown declined repeated requests to discuss why high-speed rail has not been an issue during the campaign.

"No major infrastructure projects in the history of mankind — from the Panama Canal to the Golden Gate Bridge — have been built without challenges, risks and opposition," his office said in a statement. "The high-speed rail project is no different, but as Californians we're up for it."

The governor's office also declined to address a number of uncertainties that have arisen around the project this year. Those include an estimate of increased costs by a state contractor, an opinion by the chairman of a state watchdog panel that the system would operate slower than expected, and more delays in the start of heavy construction, which officials initially had planned for 2012.

The rail authority has discounted the importance of those issues, saying the project is proceeding apace and will meet required completion targets.

The potential problems with the project have not been a focal point of Kashkari's campaign either, although he has labeled the high-speed rail line a "crazy train." In an interview, he said he hadn't researched the project deeply and wasn't familiar with many of the planning documents for the system.

However, Kashkari did say that his experiences as an aerospace engineer, a financier for Silicon Valley technology companies and an assistant Treasury secretary during the financial crisis tell him that the promised Los Angeles-to-San Francisco, 220-mph rail line will take longer than planned to complete and cost more than the $68-billion price tag.

"This is a classic approach to government projects," Kashkari said. "Just get it started and nobody can stop it."

Brown "has taken political ownership but he hasn't taken management ownership," said the Republican, who is trailing by a wide margin in the polls. "If this is his signature project, it should be run out of the governor's office."

Officials in charge of the project continue to say that it will be completed on budget and will meet a 2017 deadline for use of federal construction grants on the initial section of track.

"The execution of the project is going well," said Dan Richard, who heads the state High Speed Rail Authority board. "We have the [management] team in place that gives me the most confidence. We take it one day at a time."

Brown has presided over a series of key political and legal victories related to high-speed rail over the last two years, including securing the $6-billion appropriation in 2012, winning a commitment from the Legislature to allocate 25% of the state's revenue from future greenhouse gas fees to the project and repelling a court challenge to the validity of spending plans.

But there are a number of ongoing challenges that could affect costs and schedules.

Major construction was supposed to start at the end of 2012, but there have been a number of delays. One reason is that the rail authority owns only a fraction of the parcels it needs for the first 29 miles of construction.

URS, a San Francisco-based engineering firm hired by the authority, reported earlier this year that the cost of the Fresno-to-Bakersfield segment would cost about $1 billion more than previously estimated. The rail authority's Richard said the company's estimate, which is the subject of a contract dispute, was erroneous and that the budget for the entire project remained at $68 billion

Some transportation analysts give the project good marks, particularly in light of the difficulties it faces. "Mega-projects are never easy," said Will Kempton, executive director of the trade group Transportation California. "It is early in the game, but to my observation the authority is making a lot of good moves."

But others see Brown's leadership of the project as problematic.

"Gov. Brown thinks he can leave this project to the technocrats and he can take care of the political issues," said Art Bauer, a longtime transportation expert who served as a state Senate advisor on the project for six years before he retired. "He doesn't understand that leaving this project to the technocrats will cause political problems."

Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), who chairs the Senate transportation and housing committee, said closer attention needs to be paid to the project by all branches of state government.

"It is in their best interest," he said. "There wasn't enough oversight on the Bay Bridge, and you see what we got," he said, referring to the cost increases and technical problems on the $6.4-billion San Francisco project.

When DeSaulnier called a Senate oversight hearing on the bullet train in March, the only such review by the Legislature this year, no other member of the committee showed up, leaving DeSaulnier to conduct the questioning alone.

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

Twitter: @rvartabedian

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