Gee, I wonder what federal auditors will find — besides a phantom train set and a lot of wasted money? With a new study out showing that California doesn’t have the funding to complete even the first phase of their high-speed rail project, the Inspector General for the Department of Transportation will open the books to see how federal monies have been spent:
California’s high-speed rail project is facing an audit from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s as costs continue to climb.
The inspector general’s audit, announced Thursday, will examine the Federal Railroad Administration’s oversight of nearly $3.5 billion in federal grant money awarded to the project.
That’s bad news for a project that has already had plenty of bad news over the last several years. The IG will apparently focus mainly on how the FRA has performed in reporting on California’s progress rather than the performance of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. At issue will be whether the FRA has enforced project performance requirements, but that will still point out the lack of progress California has made despite all of the cash it received:
The federal money awarded to California comes with specific conditions that Kelly has promised to meet. They include completing a 119-mile (192-kilometer) segment of track now under construction in the Central Valley and finishing environmental reviews for the full line by 2022.
The audit will specifically evaluate how the Federal Railroad Administration determines whether California has complied with federal guidelines.
“Currently under construction” is a generous way for the Associated Press to describe the status of the project. In its original project plan — the plan that qualified California to get the $3.5 billion in federal funding — CHSRA projected that the first phase would be operational within eight to eleven years. It’s been ten years since then, and now the state projects that the rail line between somewhere-around-Fresno to somewhere-around-Bakersfield won’t be ready for several more years. During that same time, the estimated project cost rose from $33.4 billion to $77 billion, an increase of 129%, and there’s still no clear way to connect the first phase to San Francisco or Los Angeles.
In fact, as Dan Walters pointed out at the Mercury News earlier this week, no one’s sure how California can raise the money to connect the Central Valley run to the two population centers it’s supposed to connect:
After a decade-plus of cogitation, they said, the state still doesn’t have a complete scenario for raising the tens of billions of dollars it would take to extend the San Joaquin section into the San Francisco Bay Area via San Jose and southward to Los Angeles. …
Louis Thompson, one of the nation’s top rail system experts who chairs the project’s official “peer review” committee, sees “little prospect” that fares from the first extension could finance the second. He told legislators that the project, a favorite of Gov. Jerry Brown, is “at a critical point when difficult decisions need to be made,” and cited the need for a “credible long-term plan to finance the system.” …
Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor’s staff said there are multiple “issues” such as potentially higher costs than the current $77.3 billion estimate (twice what voters were told in 2008 when they passed a $9.95 billion bond issue), “significant uncertainties” about the bond issue proposal and finally, the lack of a “complete funding plan.”
The review concluded, “It is crucial for the high-speed rail project to have a complete and viable funding plan (and) at this time, no such funding plan exists.[“]
In other words, no one knows where the money will come from. The news that the IG has become curious over the FRA’s lack of enforcement indicates it won’t be coming from Washington, especially in a Congress controlled by Republicans. And even if the money was there, no one has a plan to cut through the mountains on either end to get to San Francisco or Los Angeles, a decade after launching this project.
Walters favors the completion of the Fresno-Bakersfield track, which the existing funding might cover, but it’s tough to see why. The demand for the 119-mile corridor won’t ever be high enough to nearly cover the cost of the construction and operation, even if it adds Amtrak service as Walters suggests. The two areas have serviceable highways to cover the 97-minute drive on 99, and Greyhound service that takes 130 minutes. California will have spent well over $10 billion to connect two counties (Fresno, Kern) by fixed rail with a combined 2016 population of 1,864,703 people, or 4.7% of the state’s estimated 39.5 million people. It would have been a heck of a lot cheaper to simply build a replacement highway along 99 instead, and would have been much more proportional to the demand for transport between Fresno and Kern.
It’s time to stop throwing good money after bad. One has to suspect that the IG report will come to the same conclusion, at least as far as the FRA and federal cash is concerned. Congress should have cut off this project years ago anyway. If California’s legislature wants to go broke betting on 19th-century fixed-track solutions to the 21st century’s transportation issues, they can do that all on their own.