By Matthew Renda
(CN) — The CEO of the California High Speed Rail Authority had to take on all comers during an oversight hearing in the state assembly on Wednesday afternoon.
Brian Kelly, the head of the rail authority, heard it from assemblymembers on both sides of the aisle, who were unsparing in their assessment of the embattled project as it enters its most crucial phase.
“We need to hit the pause button and reevaluate,” said Jim Frazier, a Democrat from Contra Costa County, who chairs the state assembly’s transportation committee. “The project has grown in cost and shrunk in scope and at some point we need to decide whether to continue to trust the current process of whether the Legislature needs to find a better way to oversee this project and spend the state’s limited resources.”
Kelly continued to tout the progress on construction, promised that his ascension to the top executive position has brought the necessary reform while acknowledging the project has suffered from past decisions.
“It’s not a big secret why this project has had such challenges — you got into construction before you had the full right of way secured,” Kelly said.
But other reports have said the first high-speed rail project in the United States has been beset by a bevy of problems, including right-of-way issues, poor contract management and deferring too much to private consultants.
“The consultants have everything to gain and nothing to lose,” Frazier said, noting that it was taxpayers and not private entities who were on the hook for poor performance.
When voters passed an initiative in 2008, they were told the project would cost $32 billion and be up and running this year — 2020.
Now project estimates fall into a range from $63 billion to $98 billion and be finished in 2033. Gov. Gavin Newsom has also pulled back on the scope of the project, saying it was important to concentrate on getting one segment of the rail complete and up and running before turning the state’s attention to connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Currently, the project calls for the construction of track that will connect Merced to Bakersfield, a source of deep skepticism for many lawmakers who question whether demand in the Central Valley will be sufficient to provide the project with the necessary funds to complete construction.
“This project would be better suited for our population centers,” said Laura Friedman, a Democrat from Glendale. “It would provide better service for those cities and get people out of their cars.”
While Democrats took their shots, California Republicans have long maintained utter contempt from the project, decrying it as an unnecessary boondoggle that will squander taxpayer funds.
Republicans took their shots again on Wednesday.
Vince Fong, a Republican from Bakersfield, has long been one of the most vocal critics of high-speed rail and said Wednesday that the economic devastation wrought by the Covid-19 crisis makes this project even more ill-advised.
“We are asking Californians to live within their means, but this project doesn’t live within its means because we don’t even know what those means are,” Fong said, in relation to fluctuating estimates.
The high-speed rail is slated to receive $5.4 billion in funding for the upcoming fiscal year that begins in July, as Newsom has promised not to touch its funding even as the revenue streams for other state services evaporate.
“It’s hard for me to stomach,” said Rebecca Bauer-Kahn, another Democrat from Contra Costa County.
Jim Patterson, a Republican from the Central Valley, peppered Kelly with questions about whether he had been interviewed by the FBI and insinuated that members of the rail authority executive team could be under criminal investigation.
Kelly denied being contacted by federal investigators except for a member of the U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General’s office, who offered to help with contract waste, fraud and abuse.
All told it was a murderer’s row for Kelly, who continued to maintain that high-speed rail has the opportunity to be a transformational project for California and the entire country.
“I have been playing at transportation policy in California for 25 years and I have never seen a project offer as much as this one does, in full build-out, in terms of mobility along with environmental and economic benefits,” Kelly said.
When Frazier pointed out California could buy half of the residents in the Central Valley an electric vehicle for the price of high-speed rail, Kelly said it wouldn’t help them beat the gridlock in the populated parts of the state.
“They will sit in traffic on I-99,” he said. “This project gives them a faster option that doesn’t require they sit in choke and congestion.”
Whether that is enough to muster the political will necessary to see the project through remains to be seen.
At the end of the hearing, a battered Kelly said it was up to the Legislature and Californians to determine whether they wanted to see the project through.
“There has to be a decision, whether there is a continued will in the state of California to build this project,” he said.” I certainly hope there is, I think it is the most transformative thing I’ve seen in my career.”