The California State Auditor's report title says it all: High-Speed Rail Authority: It Risks Delays or an Incomplete System Because of Inadequate Planning, Weak Oversight, and Lax Contract Management.
The report, which can fairly be characterized as "damning," criticizes the California High Speed Rail Authority on a wide range of issues, some of which go to the very heart of the project itself.
For example, the State Auditor says that without additional bond funding from the taxpayers, the state "may have to settle for a plan covering less than a complete corridor." Given the financial and administrative disarray of the California High Speed Rail Authority, this is a distinct possibility, which was raised by the Reason Foundation California High Speed Rail Due Diligence Report, released in September of 2008 (co-authored by Joseph Vranich and me).
This could produce a system that spectacularly fails to meet the promises of its promoters, while enriching the income statements mostly offshore firms that build trains and of firms that failed so spectacularly in managing the Big Dig in Boston. Martin Engel, who leads an organization of concerned citizens on the San Francisco peninsula frequently notes that the real driving force behind high speed rail is spending the money. In this regard, the California High Speed Rail Authority will deliver the goods. The vendors and consultants will get their money.
The State Auditor also raises questions about the potential to attract the substantial private investment necessary to completing the project. This is a legitimate concern, since the California High Speed Rail Authority has raised the possibility of government revenue guarantees for private investors. This could lead to "back door" taxpayer payment of the "private" investment.
The Authority continues to skirt legal requirements. The State Auditor notes that the "peer review" committee, ordered by state law in 2008, is still not fully constituted. This is not surprising for an agency that delayed its publication of a legally mandated business plan from two months before the 2008 bond election to days after it.
In its response, the California High Speed Rail Authority was relegated to taking issue with the report's title, characterizing it as "inflammatory" and "overly aggressive." It hardly seems inflammatory and overly aggressive to point out that an ill-conceived plan is rushing headlong to failure. The State Auditor rightly dismissed the criticism saying: "We disagree. The title accurately characterizes the risks the Authority faces, given our findings."
This potential financial debacle could not have come at a worse time for California. California's fiscal crisis is of Greek proportions. Economist Bill Watkins has raised the possibility of a default on debt. Former Mayor Richard Riordan has suggested bankruptcy for Los Angeles, the nation's second largest municipality.
Unlike many in California, Riverside's Press-Enterprise in high-speed rail in the context of California's bleak financial situation: The dearth of answers to basic fiscal questions suggests that taxpayers might end up paying for big financial deficiencies in the rail plans. Deficit-ridden California has better uses for public money; no list of state priorities includes dumping countless billions into faster trains.