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California's bullet train is running off track. A state audit could keep it from derailing

California's bullet train is running off track. A state audit could keep it from derailing
Work continues on one of the elevated sections of the high-speed rail line in Fresno, Calif. on Dec. 6, 2017. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

After years of mismanagement, missteps and bad luck that delayed and inflated the cost of California's bullet train, officials adopted a plan two years ago that they promised would get high-speed trains zipping between San Jose and the Central Valley by 2025. Construction has ramped up since then, with hundreds of workers at more than a dozen sites in the Fresno area building viaducts, underpasses and grade crossings.

But just when it seems like the bullet train — the nation's largest and most ambitious transportation project — might finally be on track, there comes more bad news: The project is over budget (again), potentially leaving it with too little money in hand to complete the work.

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The cost of building the 119-mile rail line between Madera and a point north of Bakersfield has increased from about $6 billion to $10.6 billion. This stretch through flat farmland was supposed to be the least challenging portion of the roughly $64-billion project. The lead consultant on the project delivered the bad news this month to the California High Speed Rail Authority in blunt terms: "The worst case scenario has happened."

Ten years after the passage of Proposition 1A and with the project again in limbo, it’s time for a serious reckoning.


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The cost overruns could threaten completion of the initial operating segment from San Jose to the Bakersfield area, which was pitched as the proving ground for high-speed rail in California. This portion was designed to comply with the requirement in Proposition 1A, the $9.9-billion bond measure passed in 2008, for a "usable segment." It was also supposed to demonstrate to the private sector that the bullet train is a viable and worthy investment. That's important because about one-third of the train line is supposed to be funded by private dollars. So far, the project has relied on public money.

Although there have always been skeptics who believe the bullet train is an unnecessary, overpriced boondoggle, we haven't been among them. The Times' editorial board has long embraced the promise of high-speed rail to provide extraordinary environmental, economic and transportation benefits — even as we've been frustrated by the ever-shifting plan and price tag.

Ten years after the passage of Proposition 1A and with the project again in limbo, though, it's time for a serious reckoning. What's it really going to take to build the bullet train?

The High Speed Rail Authority is now preparing its 2018 Business Plan, which is supposed to explain how the agency will complete the project. The authority also has a new CEO: Brian Kelly, the former secretary of the California State Transportation Agency. Kelly has said he wants a fresh assessment of the project as he tries to control costs and avoid past mistakes.

An independent state audit could help. Republican lawmakers have been pushing for an audit for several years now, but Democrats in the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown have blocked those efforts. Now state Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) has joined Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) in calling for an audit that analyzes the policies and practices of the authority.

Beall is an influential voice for transportation funding, and he supports the high-speed rail project. He wants an outside party to analyze the authority's contract management and suggest ways to plan and build the project faster and, ultimately, more cheaply.

Massive, complex public works efforts, like the bullet train, often run into trouble; in fact, there's a whole body of research examining why mega-projects so frequently go way over budget. The reason, researchers suggest, is that public officials often — intentionally or not — underestimate how difficult the projects will be to complete. Boston's Big Dig, a $15-billion highway under the city, took eight years longer and cost nearly six times more than planned. Replacing the earthquake-damaged San Francisco Bay Bridge took 20 years and cost $6.5 billion — a whopping 2,500% increase over initial estimates.

But just because we shouldn't be surprised that the bullet train will cost more than voters were promised in 2008, that's no reason to push ahead on the same, exceptionally overpriced track. Instead, as the authority wraps up its latest plan for how to move this project forward, it's a good idea to have an audit that examines how the agency got to this point. And it should be done now, while there is new leadership ready to make changes to the process and, if needed, the project itself.

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