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Was California's bullet train even more of a corrupt mess than we thought?

Going back to early 2018, Ed Morrissey was already sounding the alarm about the way that California’s vaunted high-speed rail line, affectionately known as the bullet train, was imploding as the world watched. By that point, cost estimates for the rail project had nearly tripled from the original projections, jumping high enough to quite literally pay for seven new nuclear-powered aircraft carriers for the Navy or wipe out more than three-quarters of Venezuela’s staggering national debt. We’re now talking about $77B. But the specifics of how things flew so badly off the rails (pardon the pun) have remained something of a mystery.

It would be easy enough to write this off to normal bureaucratic incompetence, except the daunting magnitude of this financial failure seems a bit much even for gross stupidity to explain. Now, however, the Los Angeles Times has spoken to a number of whistleblowers from WSP, the primary contractor handling the planning and management of the huge construction project. Several of them agree that everyone knew the project was a disaster, but the company’s leadership had made it clear that nobody was to speak up about it or their careers would take a downward turn.

A core problem was the project’s operating culture, in which managers for WSP, the bullet train’s lead consultant, threatened to punish or terminate employees if they failed to toe the company line, Styles said.

“I was told to shut up and not say anything,” said Styles, a career construction manager who was hired as WSP’s senior supervisory scheduler in the project’s Fresno office. “I was told that I didn’t understand the political arena the project was in. I told them I am not going to shut up. This is my job.”

The atmosphere described by Styles has been corroborated by a half dozen current and former senior officials knowledgeable about the project’s Fresno office.

The person being quoted in the article is Mark Styles. He was brought onboard at WSP in 2018 to oversee Central Valley scheduling for the California bullet train project. And as soon as he was on the job, he knew that he had been handed a big, flaming bag of dog poo. The company consistently failed at tasks as basic as delivering plausible cost estimates, creating realistic construction schedules and being able to adapt to changes in the state’s program.

But despite all of this, the project continued to barrel forward even as the estimates of the final cost to California’s taxpayers ballooned. And according to multiple former employees, WSP let everyone know that they shouldn’t bring any bad news forward and they should paint a sunny face on things. Styles eventually left the company for a new job in another state. Several of the other former employees quoted in the article have also moved on.

A WSP spokesperson denies all of this, simply saying, “We always work carefully with our client to evaluate the demands of each project and to prepare realistic and transparent recommendations regarding schedule and budget.”

Really? Lady, the cost of this project is going up by ten billion dollars when a new estimate is given. How on Earth can you stand there with a straight face and say that you always deliver realistic and transparent summaries of schedules and budgets?

In the end, however, the true blame can only be assigned to one entity and that’s not WSP. They may have fudged the books on some of their estimates, but it’s the government of California that agreed to all of the terms and accepted the deal. They could have bailed out of this money sink years ago or at least engaged new contractors to do a more competent job. But they didn’t do that. They kept plowing ahead even as they plowed more and more money down a rat hole.

At this point, nobody knows if the project will ever be finished. It may simply run out of money and have to be abandoned before a single train ever travels the first mile on those tracks. And if that happens, who will be held accountable for this undescribable boondoggle? Nobody. The culprits have been spread across multiple administrations and many of them have moved on by now. And in the end, all they may wind up with is stretches of track and trestles littering the state, slowly rusting away as children a couple of generations from now ask their parents why there are never any choo-choos on them.