Congressional panel launches probe of California’s high-speed rail project


A congressional committee has launched a wide-ranging examination of the California high-speed rail project, including possible conflicts of interest and how the agency overseeing it plans to spend billions of dollars in federal assistance.

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), notified the California High-Speed Authority about the review Monday and ordered the agency to preserve its documents and records of past communications.

Committee members say they want to ensure that tax dollars are being spent appropriately and check for possible conflicts of interest involving rail officials and contractors. They also plan to determine whether a large government commitment to the bullet train would siphon federal tax dollars away from other important transportation projects.

“California high-speed rail was sold to voters as a grand vision for tomorrow but in practice appears to be no different than countless other pork-barrel projects — driven more by political interests and consultant spending than valid cost-benefit analysis,” Issa said. “Before more taxpayer money is sent to the rail authority, questions must be answered about mismanagement, conflicts of interest, route selection, ridership and other risks.”

As much as $4 billion in federal funds have either been provided or set aside so far for the 500-mile project, the estimated cost of which has fluctuated between $33 billion and $98.5 billion. The current estimate is $68 billion.

High-speed rail officials plan to pay for half the project’s costs with federal funds. Republicans in Congress, however, have repeatedly opposed giving additional money to the bullet train.

The committee’s notification letter says there are additional concerns about the project’s compliance with Proposition 1A, the California ballot measure passed in 2008 that authorized more than $9 billion in state bonds for the project. The panel further notes that since 2010, allegations of conflict of interest have surfaced regarding authority board members at a time when the authority received and spent federal funds.

“I understand that these conflicts may have contributed to a pattern of weak oversight and mismanagement of the project,” Issa wrote. “The ability of the California High-Speed Authority to evaluate properly these contractors is incredibly important for the protection of taxpayer money.”

High-speed rail officials declined to comment, except to say they will cooperate with the committee and are confident that no problems will be found.

Also Monday, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), who has strongly backed the Obama administration’s high-speed rail agenda, said she was “quite disappointed” by the rail authority’s plan to drop the Anaheim-to-Los Angeles route out of the current $68-billion plan.

“Failure to link the high-speed rail system to Orange County negatively impacts the county’s residents and our local economy, and is a disappointment for the state of California,” Sanchez said. “To develop our state for the 21st century, we must embrace a transportation system that allows our commerce to run.”

The decision by the rail authority, first reported by The Times on Friday, reflects the lukewarm support the project has received among Republican lawmakers in the county and local transportation officials, including board members of the Orange County Transportation Authority.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Ralph Vartabedian contributed to this report.