California’s High-Speed Rail Project Still Under Construction As Delays And Costs Pile Up

California’s bullet train has become a nearly forgotten source of trouble, eclipsed in the public eye by Covid-19, a gubernatorial recall, and out-migration from the Golden State. But it’s still out there, sucking up time and money, and as empty as it ever was.

The California High Speed Rail, its formal name, was a hobby-ego project for former governor Jerry Brown that was supposed to move passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco at 220 mph by 2020. Instead, the project is moving at the speed of the museum piece it sometimes appears destined to be. Not a single train has run, with train testing still six to seven years away, amid seemingly never-ending delays.

The news regarding the project is, as usual, dismal. As the Los Angeles Times reported in January, Ghassan Ariqat, vice president of operations at bullet-train contractor Tutor Perini, sent a “scorching” letter to California officials criticizing persistent construction delays, “contradicting state claims that the line’s construction pace is on target,” and warning that the project could miss “a key 2022 federal deadline.” “It is beyond comprehension that as of this day, more than two thousand and six hundred calendar days after [official approval to start construction], the authority has not obtained all of the right of way,” Ariqat wrote. Because of the sluggish construction pace, he added, his company “will have to lay off a significant number of its field workers in the very near future” after already letting 73 walk.

Ariqat has good reason to be agitated. If there’s been a more poorly run public works project in California history, nobody can remember it. Two years ago, a senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan think tank, called California’s high-speed rail an outright “failure” that has “suffered from at least seven identifiable ‘worst practices,’” causing it “to be indefinitely delayed.”

Confidence in the original timeline was once high, but setbacks have mounted. One high-speed rail blogger wondered in 2009 if the state itself should make a bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics, since California was “on track” for “fast, high-capacity public transportation” that would allow events and venues easily to be “spread out over a much wider area.” Twelve years later, as the Los Angeles Times has noted, the project “may run out of money” before the “171-mile starter system between Bakersfield and Merced” can be completed. And this month, rising costs forced the High Speed Rail Authority to reduce the planned pair of tracks between Bakersfield and Merced to a single track, saving $1.1 billion but likely coming at the expense of train speeds.

The project, which has gone through at least a half-dozen business plans, is the definition of a money pit. When voters approved it via 2008’s Proposition 1A, they were told it would cost $33 billion. The Los Angeles Times editorialized that the cost was “not too much to wager on a visionary leap that would cement California’s place as the nation’s most forward-thinking state.” Several other newspapers favored the train, but a few came out against it, with the Orange County Register warning that Prop 1A was “a fast track to bankruptcy” and a “boondoggle.”

The original projection has proved far too optimistic. Cost estimates have bounced around since 2008, landing at various times at $64 billion, $77 billion, $98 billion, and $117 billion before settling, for now, at $100 billion for a scaled-back version that links Los Angeles and San Francisco. That’s $20 billion more than the price tag of a year ago when Governor Gavin Newsom, in one of the political understatements of the year, said that “the current project, as planned, would cost too much and take too long.”

Yet even Newsom’s revised plan has hit snags. At roughly the same time that the governor acknowledged the obvious, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) reviewed the 2020 business plan, finding that its near- and long-term schedules “appear ambitious” and identifying “some near- and long-term funding challenges confronting the project.” The train’s ridership is now predicted to be so light that operating subsidies will be needed “to cover its day-to-day financial losses.” As the LAO pointed out, the train’s need for subsidies “does not appear to be consistent with the spirit of” Proposition 1A. Initially, passengers, “rather than the general public,” were expected to “pay for the full cost of its ongoing operations and maintenance.”

Like so much else about the California bullet train, that, too, has changed.

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

This article was originally published by City Journal Online.

Delays Emerge in Blue Shield Vaccine Rollout

This week, 10 counties in the inland portions of Central and Southern California were slated to transition to the new vaccine distribution system helmed by Blue Shield — but limited communication, technical challenges and lack of transparency have resulted in delays for at least three counties. Meanwhile, the state is overhauling its equity program after young, healthy and wealthy residents in Los Angeles and San Francisco obtained vaccine access codes intended for vulnerable Californians.

It’s just the latest setback for the Golden State, which enlisted Blue Shield to speed up and streamline a slow and chaotic rollout. But although San Joaquin County was among those set to finish onboarding to the Blue Shield system by Monday, “nothing’s really transitioned at this point in our county,” Greg Diederich, the director of the San Joaquin County Health Care Services Agency, told me Wednesday. Diederich added that the county “didn’t get a lot of direct dialogue” with Blue Shield “until Thursday last week,” when the insurance giant passed along model contracts for vaccine providers.

Diederich: “Nobody to my knowledge has really signed that contract.”

Fresno County is also still in the process of “discussing that transition plan,” with a new projected launch date of March 1, Joe Prado, the county’s health division manager, said at a Tuesday press conference. Stanislaus County on Monday said it still hadn’t received any guidance from Blue Shield. …

Click here to read the full article from CalMatters.org

Controversial Voter Outreach Sweetheart Deal

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

No one who is younger than 40 will remember the late legendary radio commentator Paul Harvey.  Every afternoon, he would begin his daily radio program by promising to tell us “the rest of the story.”

Thanks to a provision slipped into a budget trailer bill last week, Californians now know “the rest of the story” on a questionable voter outreach contract awarded last year during the “fog” of the Covid-19 crisis.

With the 2020 presidential campaign taking place during a global pandemic, there was much discussion over adapting longstanding voting practices to safeguard the public health while also ensuring the people’s voices were heard in an important election.

California and other states shifted much of last year’s voting process from a traditional, in person voting at polling places to absentee ballots.  First by executive order, and later by legislative action when the legality of the Governor’s executive powers was challenged in court, California moved to send an unsolicited absentee ballot to every registered voter in the state in 2020.

It is common for the California Secretary of State’s office to conduct large-scale voter outreach campaigns to encourage as many Californians to vote as possible.  What is not common is that the voter outreach contractor would also be a consultant for the Democratic presidential ticket.

“Under the contract, SKD Knickerbocker, a Washington, D.C.-based public affairs firm, will help run the ‘Vote Safe California’ campaign, which will urge people to vote during the pandemic.,” wrote the Associated Press in August when the contract was awarded.

“Anita Dunn, the firm’s managing director, is a senior strategist for Biden’s presidential campaign. The firm’s work for Biden is highlighted on its website, with a headline saying the company is ‘proud to be a part of Team Biden,’” the AP also noted.

Then-Secretary of State Alex Padilla, now a U.S. Senator, says he personally played no role in awarding SKD Knickerbocker the contract.

Then things got interesting. State Controller Betty Yee refused to pay the $35 million bill. According to CalMatters, the dispute was “over whether Padilla’s office had the budgetary authority to pay for a $35 million contract.”

“The secretary of state’s office maintained that it did have budgetary authority. The controller’s office, which approves payments, maintained that it did not,” Calmatters noted.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association also filed a lawsuit over the contract, noting in a press release that, “the contract is unsupported by any line item in the state budget.”

Since then, the firm’s invoices to the state for its Vote Safe California television, radio, and social media campaigns have gone unpaid.

Between November and February, there’s been a lot of huffing and puffing between the Newsom administration, the Secretary of State’s office, and the Controller’s office over paying the bill.

Now, the Legislature is poised to weigh in on behalf of paying the contract.  According to the Sacramento Bee, “an amendment to a state budget bill introduced by Democrats on Wednesday would allow for the state to pay for the voter outreach by using money earmarked to help counties conduct last year’s election.”  Through a tweak of legislative language and a couple of fund shifts, Yee would seemingly now have the authority to pay the bill once the new legislation is signed into law.

Republican Senators Pat Bates and Jim Nielsen cried foul over the move.

“Changing state law retroactively to pay for a sweetheart deal with a partisan political firm is an abuse of power,” they said in a statement.  “Taxpayers should not have to pay for the shady deal that was executed by the previous Secretary of State.”

The whole affair makes clear one thing – imagine how much time, money, and effort could have been saved had the Secretary of State’s office awarded this contract in an honest, transparent manner and to a non-partisan firm as it should have done in the first place.

Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s senior director of communications and director of PRI’s Sacramento office.

This article was originally published by the Pacific Research Institute.

Irvine Finalizes ‘Hero Pay’ For Grocery Workers

A $4-an-hour pay bump lasting through the summer is expected for workers at larger grocery and drug stores in Irvine starting in late March.

The extra hazard, or “hero,” pay is a new mandate the Irvine City Council approved Tuesday, Feb. 23. It makes Irvine the first Orange County city to adopt a pay-boosting measure that cities including Long Beach, Los Angeles, Montebello, West Hollywood and several Bay Area communities have also put in place.

Buena Park city leaders also approved a temporary hike of $4 an hour on Tuesday, but the council must take a second procedural vote before it would it would go into effect.

Supporters of the pay boosts say grocery and pharmacy workers deserve to be compensated for continuing to show up to work and serve the public during the coronavirus pandemic, potentially putting their health or that of their families at risk. …

Click here to read the full article from the Orange County Register.

Gov. Newsom’s Cruel, Indefinite Lockdown of Californians 340 Days Later

The statewide confusion and anger over California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s coronavirus lockdown vs. re-opening orders has only heightened with every day this drags on.

It was March 4, 2020 when we were told to shelter in place for two weeks to flatten the curve… that was more than 340 days ago.

“Compliance is not punitive,” Gov. Newsom said in November, after being exposed for violating his own lockdown restrictions, imposed on the 40 million California residents. It was revealed that Gov. Newsom and his wife attended a large birthday dinner party in Napa Valley with several lobbyists at The French Laundry in Yountville, California Globe reported.

As he praised California’s 40 million residents “for the good work you have done,” he rewarded the state with more restrictions, a curfew and ordered businesses closed again ahead of the holidays.

One of the lobbyists at The French Laundry dinner coincidentally orchestrated exemptions from the governor’s COVID lockdown restrictions for the entertainment industry, while restaurants remained under the most severe restrictions.

This coincided with millions of dollars in behest contributions from big business to Newsom’s personal initiatives. There was an “overlap of at least a half-dozen companies that made substantial contributions to Newsom and received no-bid contracts from the state, influential appointments, or other opportunities related to the state’s pandemic response,” according to a CapRadio report. This prompted Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) to call for a legislative investigation into Governor Gavin Newsom’s no-bid contracts awarded during the COVID-19 State of Emergency.

The year-long lockdown is also shakedown.

CPR found:

an “overlap of at least a half-dozen companies that made substantial contributions to Newsom and received no-bid contracts from the state, influential appointments, or other opportunities related to the state’s pandemic response.”

A list of major Newsom donors who have received no-bid contracts or other opportunities during the pandemic: Blue Shield of California – Contributed over $300,000 since 2018, received a $15 million no-bid contract; UnitedHealth – Contributed over $200,000 since 2018, subsidiary received multiple no-bid contracts totaling over $400 million; Bloom Energy – Contributed nearly $100,000 since 2018, received a $2 million no-bid contract; BYD – Contributed $40,000, received a no-bid contract totaling over $1 billion; FivePoint – Contributed over $50,000, CEO received appointment to task force; Pacific6 – Contributed nearly $50,000, state approved reopening of a hospital they operate.

When COVID hit California, Newsom told the state that within eight weeks, 25 million Californians – more than half of the state’s population – would become ‘infected” with the virus. He was quickly corrected by prominent physicians who said there was no science or data available at the time to make such a hyperbolic statement.

Newsom was also simultaneously conducting daily news conferences outside of the Capitol, away from the press and public, and signing executive orders making new laws under his new found emergency powers.

By April 2020, Newsom’s Department of Public Health suspended nursing home relegations allowing COVID-19 patients to be housed in nursing homes, but few in the media covered this, as the Globe did. In June, COVID patients were still being sent to skilled nursing facilities, the Globe reported. We wanted to know why the California Department of Public Health was directing skilled nursing facilities to take in COVID-19 patients, and at what cost and why with plenty of hospital beds throughout the state available? Our request to the CDPH received a response:  CDPH acknowledges that the elderly patients already in skilled nursing facilities are “California’s most vulnerable,” but they never answered why would they send any COVID-19 patients to facilities with the most frail and vulnerable patients. To this day, the question remains unanswered.

Since the Globe reported this, hospital data no longer includes nursing home statistics.

Schools originally remained open, until the governor caved to the closure demands of the California Teachers Association labor union, sent students home for “distance learning” on computers via Zoom calls, despite the virus showing no scientific evidence of targeting young people.

School sports, shut down. School clubs, shut down. School bands, shut down. School graduations, shut down. School testing, shut down.

Then came the “essential” jobs and business orders: all government employees were deemed “essential,” and continued working remotely.

Home Depot, Walmart, COSTCO, and other big box stores were deemed “essential” by the governor.

Small businesses, small restaurants, hair and nail salons and barber shops, boutiques and clothing shops, all were shut down and deemed “non-essential…” except to the owners and employees of these businesses.

Remember the near hysteria about the lack of ICU beds in the state? Strangely, Newsom is silent now about ICU beds, yet he continues to conflate positive COVID tests as “infections” and “cases.”

All of this is because this isn’t about a health crisis, otherwise every state in the country would be in lockdown (or not); this is about controlling the citizens, and our rights to move about freely as we did prior to the COVID crisis.

Gov. Newsom unconstitutionally restricted the right to worship in churches. He closed public schools while his children attended private school in person. He ordered hospitals, nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities locked down, and restricted family from visiting. He even ordered no travel.

And the media greatly assisted him in this endeavor.

Yet the number of positive tests, hospitalizations, and deaths due to COVID are dropping daily. But the state has drastically limited access to actual data.

California has conducted 47,043,348 COVID tests. Of those, 3,441,946 tested positive, leaving 43,601, 402 testing negative. The data available shows 36,177 or 74% of the 49,105 COVID deaths are over the age of 65.

However, California schools are still closed, as are most school sports. While some schools and teams are starting up again, many schools are choosing to keep sports closed down.

The governor’s sports guidelines are just bizarre:

Inter-team competitions (i.e., between two teams) resumed in California beginning January 25, 2021.The guidelines outlined in this document shall take effect on February 26, 2021.

The status of return-to-competition is subject to change at any time given the level of COVID-19 transmission in California.

Sports Risk Profiles

In general, the more people from outside their household with whom a person interacts, the closer the physical interaction is, the greater the physical exertion is, and the longer the interaction lasts, the higher the risk that a person with COVID-19 infection may spread it to others.

These are the governor’s General Sports Requirements:

  • Face coverings to be worn when not participating in the activity (e.g., on the sidelines).
  • Face coverings to be worn by coaches, support staff and observers at all times, and in compliance with the CDPH Guidance for the Use of Face Coverings.
  • Observers maintain at least 6 feet from non-household members.
  • No sharing of drink bottles and other personal items and equipment.
  • Mixing with other households prior to and post any practice or competition must strictly adhere to current gathering guidance.
  • Limit indoor sports activities (practice, conditioning) to comply with capacity limits (which shall include all athletes, coaches, and observers) indicated in current CDPH Gym & Fitness Center Guidance Capacity.
  • Associated indoor activities for the team (e.g., dinners, film study) are prohibited if engaged in competition given evidence that transmission is more likely to occur in these indoor higher risk settings.
  • Teams must not participate in out-of-state games and tournaments; several multistate outbreaks have been reported around the nation, including California residents.

Shouldn’t the general requirements be the responsibility of the coaches and parents?

These absurd guidelines demonstrate this is purely about Gov. Newsom controlling the state’s citizens.

Katy Grimes, the Editor of the California Globe, is a long-time Investigative Journalist covering the California State Capitol, and the co-author of California’s War Against Donald Trump: Who Wins? Who Loses?

This article was originally published by the California Globe.

New Coronavirus Variant Spotted in California Raises Alarm

Scientists are raising concerns over a new coronavirus variant that has been identified in California.

Two studies due to come out soon suggest the variant, which the virologists call B.1.427/B.1.429, might not only be more contagious, but may also cause more severe disease.

A team of scientists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), tested virus samples from recent outbreaks across the state and found the new variant was becoming far more common. It wasn’t seen in any samples from September but by the end of January it was found in half of them.

A major caveat: the research is in its very early stages, has not been published or peer-reviewed and needs more work. …

Click here to read the full article from CNN

Cleaning Up A $35 Million Sacramento Mess

(Gage Skidmore /Flickr)

Only in California. Sign a shady multimillion-dollar state contract with a politically connected consulting firm to do “voter outreach,” get sued over it and not only will your friends in Sacramento paper over it, but they will also appoint you to the United States Senate.

Or at least that is how it worked for Sen. Alex Padilla.

In this column last year, we told you about the attempt of then-Secretary of State Padilla to execute a $35 million contract with a political consulting firm, SKDKnickerbocker, whose website prominently stated that it was on “Team Biden.”

But the contract was fishy from the start. Not only did the secretary of state’s office not comply with the Public Contract Code, only a handful of partisan political consulting firms, rather than nonpartisan advertising agencies, were solicited to bid and, most importantly, the contract was not supported by any line item in the state budget.

Even the state controller’s office cried foul and rejected the contract. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association sued, media scrutiny followed, and Padilla and Gov. Gavin Newsom got egg on their faces just as Newsom was appointing Padilla to the U.S. Senate.

On a call with reporters in December to discuss Padilla’s promotion, the two were quick to downplay the contract.

“The Controller’s office, the Department of Finance — everyone is sharpening their pencils and working it out,” said Padilla.

“We’re working with legislative leadership and (the Department of) Finance and we’ll get that paid,” said Newsom.

Well, the fix is in and the governor and Democrats in the state Legislature intend to get SKDK paid even if it comes at the expense of the counties.

To read the entire column, please click here.

California OKs $600 Stimulus Payments For 5.7 Million People

California lawmakers on Monday cleared the way for 5.7 million people to get at least $600 in one-time payments, part of a state-sized coronavirus relief package aimed at helping those with low-to-moderate incomes weather the pandemic.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said he will sign the bill into law on Tuesday, one day after it passed the state Legislature by a wide margin.

Fewer people will get these payments as compared to the federal relief checks Congress approved last year. But state lawmakers are aiming the money to reach the pockets of people who were left out of those previous checks, including immigrants.

People who are eligible for the money should get it between 45 days and 60 days after receiving their state tax refunds, according to the Franchise Tax Board. …

Click here to read the full article from the Associated Press.

Oakland Plan To Replace Police With Mental Health Workers In Disarray

As protests against police brutality swept Oakland in June, the City Council took a bold step toward rethinking public safety: It set aside $1.85 million for a new program to dispatch counselors and paramedics to mental health crises, instead of armed law enforcement officers.

Eight months later, the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland program, known as MACRO, has yet to get off the runway. And on Wednesday, two community organizations that were vying for the contract bowed out.

“This is very disappointing to say the least,” Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas wrote Thursday in an email to city officials, announcing that the two groups — Bay Area Community Services and Alliance for Community Wellness, also known as La Familia Counseling Service — had pulled their applications.

The city mental health program, billed as a temporary pilot originally set to begin in January, represents an experiment in redistributing police funding that is playing out in cities across the U.S. In Oakland, the effort is complicated by politics. A battle flared up this month over which nonprofit would receive taxpayer funds to handle duties that have long fallen on sworn police officers. …

Click here to read the full article from the San Francisco Chronicle.

San Diego Pays Top Dollar For Hotels To House The Homeless

The city of San Diego appears to have paid above-market rates for the two Residence Inn hotels it purchased late last year for just over $106 million, properties that city officials are relying on to help reduce the homeless population across the community.

According to an analysis of sales data obtained by The San Diego Union-Tribune, the Residence Inn Mission Valley cost taxpayers $67 million — not including a $502,000 broker’s fee paid by the buyer — or just under $349,000 for each of 192 rooms.

That was the highest per-room cost for any hotel sold in San Diego County last year — and it was based on a valuation that was set weeks before the global coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on the hospitality industry.

The Kearny Mesa Residence Inn, also bought by the city of San Diego last year, was acquired for $39.5 million, almost $275,000 for each of its 144 rooms. Both properties closed escrow on Nov. 25. …

Click here to read the full article from the San Diego Union-Tribune.