Is High Speed Rail on Track Approaching a Fork in the Road?

In 2010, California State Auditor Elaine Howle indicated that the financing for high speed rail, California’s most expensive infrastructure project ever, was “incredibly risky”, adding that the oversight for this massive project was lacking. Responding to such criticisms, the California High Speed Rail Authority (Authority) was tasked with drafting another business plan that took a more realistic look at the fiscal costs for the project. Released in November, Howle has stated that even the newer, revised version depends on ambiguous sources for capital and that “the program’s overall financial situation has become increasingly risky.”

It isn’t just Howle who has been raising concerns about the nearly $100 billion High Speed Rail (HSR) project.  Since the passage of Prop 1A, which allocated nearly $10 billion of general fund money toward HSR in California, several critiques have come out. The Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) recommended withholding nearly all funding until the Authority distributed a comprehensive business plan and ridership study; meanwhile, the Authority’s own peer review group just released its own report that suggested the project be reconsidered and funding not be authorized by the Legislature.

Despite this mounting criticism…or perhaps because of it…the Governor has redoubled his support of the HSR project. Even with myriad of critical issues facing California, he spent significant time discussing the need for California to be a leader on high speed rail in his State of the State address.

He is also starting to put his stamp on the project in a major way – while not confirmed, many speculate that the change in leadership at the Authority over the past few weeks is, in fact, a move by the Brown Administration to take more ownership of HSR and address the concerns that have been plaguing this project. This month has seen the resignation of the Authority’s CEO Roelof Van Ark and Deputy Director Dan Leavitt, while Thomas Umberg announced he is stepping down as Chairman, though he will remain on the Authority’s Board. Dan Richard, who has been Brown’s point-person on HSR (and is a featured panelist at PCL’s upcoming Symposium), will be stepping into the role as Chair.

Governor Brown taking leadership of HSR is viewed by many (including PCL) as a positive development, and it is our hope that he will be open to addressing concerns raised by environmental and community groups to ensure we move forward with a project that will achieve its touted benefits of lessening Californians’ dependence on highways and air travel; reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other impacts to our lands, air and water; and providing critically-needed jobs in this state.

As the 2012 legislative session picks up, we can expect to see a myriad of HSR bills brought by the Governor as well as legislative proponents and opponents of the project, and the Planning and Conservation League will keep you up to speed with all the developments as they occur.