Audit the California High Speed Rail Authority

high speed rail trainThe California High Speed Rail Authority once again opposes oversight of its actions. On Tuesday the Joint Legislative Audit Committee held a hearing on the request by state Senator Andy Vidak to have the State Auditor conduct an audit of the Authority’s activities.

The Committee, on a strictly party line vote, denied the request. The request was triggered by the explosive Sunday, Oct 25th L.A. Times article, which disclosed a previously undisclosed report by the Authority’s contractor, Parson Brinkerhoff (PB).  The report projected a $9 billion increase in construction costs of the initial Merced to Burbank segment. (The article also disclosed from interviews with experts, that time lines, and budget targets would not be met.) 

The Times article, authored by Ralph Vartabedian, noted the cost increase report was delivered months before the 2014 business plan was released. The 2014 business plan did not include the projected $9 billion cost increase and instead continued to use cost projections from the 2012 business plan.

The first responses from the Authority to the Times article were: We don’t know about such a report, followed then by a blunt statement from Authority Chair Dan Richard, stating the article was “bunk.”

The Authority’s often-restated position is that the Authority is the most transparent of public agencies. Yet its actions reveal a completely different picture.

The Times article, was followed by numerous Freedom of Information act requests, which belatedly forced the Authority to release the report. The report was in the form a PowerPoint presentation, and was presented several months before the 2014 Business Plan was released.

Assemblywoman Toni Atkins then announced that a hearing would be held on the issues raised in the article. The hearing is now set to take place on Jan 27th.  Indeed the argument used by Democrats at the JLAC hearing to deny the audit was that an audit by the State Auditor was unnecessary and would be redundant to what would be revealed at the Legislative hearing.

But there is a whole world of difference between an audit conducted by the non-partisan State Auditor, and any legislative hearing being conducted by a Democratic controlled committee. Indeed, already announced by Atkins was that subpoenas would not be issued by the committee conducting the hearing.

Transparency and oversight in the Authority’s view, have many restrictions. The Authority denies many public record requests using one excuse or another. Many times disclosure comes only after immense pressure is exerted on the Authority. This was certainly the case which finally caused the release of the Powerpoint report disclosed in the LA Times article. This was also the case regarding final disclosure last year to the public, of the responses from private investors to the Authority’s request for Expressions of Interest in the project. (None of the finally revealed 36 responses indicated any willingness to invest.)

The Authority, throughout its existence, has used many tactics to avoid oversight. During 2010 to 2012, when the state Senate Housing and Transportation committee was led by Democrats, Senators Alan Lowenthal and Joe Simitian, numerous hearings were held and on many occasions the committee had to fight very hard to obtain needed information.

Last year the Authority managed to get the Legislature to remove the Authority’s obligation to report twice yearly and instead only reporting once every 2 years; removing one more level of oversight.

During the JLAC hearing on Tuesday, the State Auditor, Elaine Howle, presented her plan for the audit. She disclosed the audit would take about 2,100 hours and would need 5 months to complete. Considering the Authority has now spent almost $2 billion, the cost of this modest audit was hardly a consideration. Nevertheless, the Democrat-controlled committee rejected the request.

The Authority has stopped releasing the Funding Contribution Plans. These reports are mandated by the funding agreement between the Authority and the Federal Railway Administration (FRA). The reports are due quarterly within 30 days after the end of a quarter. The last report disclosed was the March 2015 report. Thus, as of this date, the June and Sept. 2015 reports are delinquent, and at the end of this month, the Dec. 2015 report will also be past due. These are the key reports showing how the Authority is performing on its project. Apparently the FRA has quit worrying about the Authority’s compliance with the funding agreement. The FRA has thus far not replied to my Freedom of Information request concerning the missing Funding Contribution Plans.

A just released poll from the Stanford University Hoover Institution reported “53 percent of Californians would vote for a ballot measure ending high-speed rail and using the unspent money on water-storage projects.” (poll details) The poll also reveals only 20 percent strongly approve, whereas 33 percent strongly disapprove of the California HSR project.

esident of Menlo Park and Founder of DERAIL, a grassroots effort against the California high-speed rail project.

This piece was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Comments

  1. RetiredXLR8R says

    Our entire State and Federal government are corrupt!
    Every position, desk, authority, department, agency, buearacracy, should be audited by a private Citizen group in tandem with consultants, accountants, and specialist with authority to impose their results.
    Governments for far too long have had a free reign in wasting taxpayers dollars and they need to periodically be held accountable.
    The voting booth isn’t doing it, because too many of these cash sink holes are divorced from political parties or any of the branches of government that are legal and constitutional.
    It is time, as candidate Fiorina says “to take back our country”

    • A thourough independent audit of every program in ka ka land would be MARVELOUS and most likely shine light into dark and corrupt corners. But seeing as how the always crime ridden democreep party controls all aspects of our governing system and our lives, it will NEVER happen, at least here! The RICH and powerful will ALWAYS protect the liberal rich and powerful!

    • fealtytoprinciple says

      The corruption from vendors who provide services at high rates than government workers is a much bigger threat to our government security than any terrorist groups. I think a systemic independent audit of all branches of government is a great idea. At random, transparent, and tracked.

  2. This will go so upside-down that we will look at Boston’s Big Dig as a best-case scenario.
    No telling how bad it will be once they attempt to cross the Tehachpi’s.

  3. As a Northern California resident of 70 years— one who has driven from Sacramento to LA more than a hundred times I will say this project would have been completed years ago by the private sector if it made good business sense. It does not.
    It Is now and will forever be a drag on the state and country’s economy— just like Amtrack and virtually all government entities. It is black hole!
    It is not needed, it will not be frequented, ticket prices will not even cover the cost of printing the tickets.
    It’s this kind of nonsensical spending that makes it possible for some foreign country to own our country one day. We will wind up selling our national parks and massive land holdings and even natural resources o pay the debts for such willy nilly projects because foreign governments are actually loaning us the money to pay for them. They will foreclose on us one day.

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