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California bullet train critics not on board with latest federal update

The nation’s first bullet-train project, now being built in California, has been subject to erratic changes in the construction schedule and inadequate oversight of federal spending, critics say. 

On Wednesday, the California High-Speed Rail Authority signed an amended agreement with the Federal Railroad Administration, authority officials said, in order to align the existing federal grant with the rail authority’s 2016 business plan.

That plan reflects a shift in emphasis for the $64 billion project. The authority previously said that the rail line from the San Fernando Valley to Merced in the Central Valley would be the first segment constructed, with a completion date of 2022. The 2016 business plan released this month states that the first segment of the system to be operational will be the San Jose-to-Merced line, with the completion date set for three years later in 2025.

Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican from California’s Central Valley and a longtime opponent of the rail project, said in a prepared statement: “The Obama administration has just written a blank check and is trying to skirt federal law with so-called stimulus funding.”

Denham’s chief of staff, Jason Larrabee, told AMI Newswire Friday that the congressman, who chairs the Transportation Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, is pushing for new hearings on the high-speed rail project, although none has yet been scheduled.

Larrabee said the rail authority has altered its timeline for finishing a key segment of the system in the Central Valley, pushing back the completion date to 2022 from 2018.

“American taxpayers have been lied to repeatedly about the ‘shovel-ready’ nature of this project and the promptness of new jobs,” he said in an email.

Annie Parker, information officer for the rail authority, told AMI Newswire that the agreement signed this week simply reflects the changes written into the authority’s 2016 business plan and doesn’t change the project’s overall goal of building a high-speed rail line connecting the Bay Area to Los Angeles by 2029.

“There is a long history of precedent for these types of amendments, and they are widely recognized as being a fundamental tool for administering federal grants,” Parker said. “There’s nothing controversial or unprecedented about this amendment.”

The agreement will ensure that federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds will be spent on the project by the required deadline of Sept. 30, 2017, she said. The agreement also takes into account the commitment of California Cap and Trade Program funds to the high-speed rail project.

The 2016 business plan concludes that the initial line from the Silicon Valley to the Central Valley will generate continuing passenger revenue and better position the rail system to attract private investment as it expands north and south.

Denham, however, sees a pattern of project changes, involving the timeline, costs and routes, that raises legal questions – as well as whether the people of California are getting their money’s worth from the project, which voters approved in 2008.

“Mr. Denham has inquired with the Government Accountability Office and Office of Inspector General regarding the legality of the contract modifications,” Larrabee said. “To his knowledge, this type of contract modification has never occurred on a federal transportation project.”

The congressman has also called for the project to be stopped and brought back before California voters to see if they want to go forward the bullet train plans.

The 2016 business plan includes a letter from Louis Thompson, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group, that explains the need to build the San Jose-to-Merced part of the line prior to the section connecting the Central Valley with the San Fernando Valley.

“The high costs of traversing the Tehachapi Mountains south of Bakersfield cannot be covered from identifiable sources of funding available in the short term,” the March 25 letter to state lawmakers says. “Under the constrained approach, the Authority is acknowledging that there are not sufficient existing funds to complete the southern leg, but is arguing that existing sources of funds are adequate to complete the specified northern segment.”

Parker emphasized that Gov. Jerry Brown and the California legislature remain behind the high-speed rail program.  “It’s only a handful of opponents who are trying to derail the program,” she said.