It’s a movie we’ve seen several times before. A government agency issues a report warning that it’s possible there could be big cost overruns on the high speed rail project. (In other news, water is wet.) HSR opponents jump all over the report, Republicans wave it around to justify another attack, all while the California High Speed Rail Authority takes further steps to actually ensure everything goes as planned.
This movie has been rebooted again here in 2017, and our old buddy Ralph Vartabedian is once again writing the story:
California’s bullet train could cost taxpayers 50% more than estimated — as much as $3.6 billion more. And that’s just for the first 118 miles through the Central Valley, which was supposed to be the easiest part of the route between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
A confidential Federal Railroad Administration risk analysis, obtained by The Times, projects that building bridges, viaducts, trenches and track from Merced to Shafter, just north of Bakersfield, could cost $9.5 billion to $10 billion, compared with the original budget of $6.4 billion.
The federal document outlines far-reaching management problems: significant delays in environmental planning, lags in processing invoices for federal grants and continuing failures to acquire needed property.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority originally anticipated completing the Central Valley track by this year, but the federal risk analysis estimates that that won’t happen until 2024, placing the project seven years behind schedule.
The report, the most critical official assessment of the project to surface so far, is labeled a “confidential-draft deliberative document for internal use only” and was presented by senior Federal Railroad Administration executives to California rail authority board Chairman Dan Richard and Chief Executive Jeff Morales on Dec. 1 in Washington.
This analysis puts the state on notice that it could face bigger cost overruns than anticipated and much longer delays than have been made public, a troubling critique by an agency that has been a stalwart supporter and longtime financier of the nation’s largest infrastructure project.
Leave it to Vartabedian to paint this in the worst possible light. He’s been convinced for years that massive cost overruns are certain, even though so far they haven’t materialized once the contracts have been signed.
He does let Jeff Morales have his say:
Morales cautioned in an interview that the numbers in the analysis are only projections and estimates that do not account for intervention by the rail authority, and he asserted that the construction in the Central Valley will cost less than the risk analysis indicates. The estimates, he said, are based on a lot of assumptions that the authority wants to ensure are correct.
“The point of doing this analysis is to identify the challenges and work through them,” he said. “They are not conclusions and not findings.”
Morales is, of course, correct. The analysis is part of good risk management and the Authority has repeatedly shown it is responsive to these warnings – to the extent they can, given that so much of their work depends on factors entirely out of their hands.
But then Vartabedian spends the rest of the article quoting Republican anti-HSR voices like Jeff Denham, as well as throwing other random attacks out at the Authority:
And an internal report obtained by The Times notes a just-completed survey in which employees complain that morale is low and has declined in each of the last three years. Employees interviewed by The Times say turnover is consistently high, leaving staff overworked. The rail authority’s senior deputy, its chief administrative officer and its top information technology executive recently left.
I have no way to know if this is true, and I’m certainly not going to take Vartabedian’s word for it. But if it is true, I’m sure the constant misleading and biased attacks from a reporter writing in the state’s largest newspaper has nothing at all to do with it.
The Authority has powered through the last ten years despite constant media attacks, constant doubts being leveled by Republicans, a persistent unwillingness by state and federal legislators to ensure the SF to LA project is fully funded, vicious personal attacks from HSR opponents (especially NIMBYs), and endless nuisance lawsuits.
It cannot be an easy job. Yet they not only continue doing it, they do it well. Construction is humming along without any major problems or overruns.
Still, these stories have their effect. And because Donald Trump is being inaugurated as president this week, we need to now start paying attention to what his administration’s Pravda – Breitbart.com – is saying about HSR. It’s mostly a rehash of Vartabedian’s article, but this stood out to me:
The Federal Railroad Administration provided California with $3.5 billion between two federal grants for the project. President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus granted funds to the project; however, if the state fails to meet a September 30 deadline that requires paperwork to be submitted by June 20, the rail authority could lose up to $220 million of those funds.
I will bet money that the Trump FRA finds a way to claim that the Authority missed this deadline and must repay that $220 million. I would not be surprised if they also make a play to try and clawback much more of that stimulus money, though I doubt it can go very far.
Of all the obstacles I described above that the Authority has weathered, they may be about to encounter the largest one yet: Donald Trump. Let’s hope California’s anti-Trump resistance includes refusing to let Trump destroy the state’s future by attacking high speed rail.