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State analyst wants to put brakes on high-speed rail until changes made

May 10, 2011 |  1:29 pm

An independent assessment of California's high-speed rail project warned Tuesday that funding uncertainties and conditions attached to almost $3.5 billion in federal assistance threaten the proposal as it heads into its first phase of construction in the Central Valley.

Released Tuesday, the 28-page report by the state Legislative Analyst also concludes that the governing structure for the $43-billion project is too weak to manage development and the Legislature lacks good information to make crucial multi-billion-dollar decisions about the proposal it will soon face.

To bolster management of the project, the office recommended that the California High-Speed Rail Authority shift responsibilities to a new division of Caltrans that would be created especially for the rail project.

“A new and separate division of Caltrans dedicated to the high–speed rail project would be better positioned, if equipped with the appropriate project delivery tools, to manage the development of the system in this phase,” the report stated.

In addition, the analyst recommended that the Legislature remove decision–making power from the currently appointed rail board to ensure that the state’s overall interests are taken into account as the project is developed.

If the state proceeds with the project, the report states that two important steps must be taken now to improve the chances for successful development.

First, deadlines and requirements for spending federal funds need to be changed to provide lawmakers more time and greater flexibility to make crucial decisions. The conditions that should be modified include a requirement that all $3.5 billion in federal funds earmarked for the project be spent to build the first section of the rail line in the Central Valley.

Second, significant improvements are needed in the way day-to-day and longer-term strategic decisions are made.

“We have concluded that the current governance structure for the project is no longer appropriate and is too weak to ensure that this mega-project is coordinated and managed effectively,” researchers said.

The analyst’s office further recommended that the Legislature reject the Brown administration’s 2011–12 budget request for $185 million in funding for consultants to perform management duties, public outreach and other work to develop the project. Instead, researchers said that only $7 million requested by the California High-Speed Rail Authority for administration should be appropriated.


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-- Dan Weikel