State analyst: Don't start high-speed rail in Valley

The Legislative Analyst's Office on Tuesday recommended that the state's proposed high-speed rail system start in Los Angeles or the Bay Area -- not in the Central Valley.

The recommendation was part of a blistering report that found a host of faults with the project, in which California officials envision an 800-mile rail system connecting San Diego and Los Angeles to Sacramento and San Francisco through Fresno.

Among them are unrealistic funding assumptions, an overreliance on consultants, a poor business plan, and outdated and understated cost estimates.

But central San Joaquin Valley officials smelled politics in the report, and said if the recommendations were followed, it would mark the end of a true statewide high-speed rail network.

"I think, with anything, there are a couple of valid points, but there are some conclusions in this report that are absolutely unfounded," Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin said.

The mayor said the report's conclusions -- which call for significant legislative intervention -- feel political in nature.

Among her biggest concerns are taking the decision on which segment to build first from the state's High-Speed Rail Authority and giving it to the state Legislature.

"Can you imagine our state Legislature being responsible for that kind of decision when they can't even make run-of-the-mill decisions like balancing the budget?" Swearengin asked. "It would entirely be political, and would not be based on the effectiveness of the trains or the overall project."

Ultimately, she said, it would end up being a parochial project limited to the Los Angeles region and the Bay Area.

Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea said the recommendations, "if taken seriously, will be the end of high-speed rail for all Californians."

Eric Thronson, the Legislative Analyst's Office staffer who wrote the report, said it wasn't requested by a legislator. Instead, he said, his office "felt like it was an important discussion to have."

The high-speed rail project is at a "critical juncture," he added. "At this time next year, if we move forward as planned, the Legislature will be appropriating billions of dollars" -- and decisions on the project will be harder to change.

In his report, Thronson said there is "a significant risk" that the high-speed rail project never will be completed. Because of that, the report said, state officials should rethink the idea of starting with a line that is currently slated to run from just north of Bakersfield to a point near Chowchilla.

The report said other segments "could provide greater benefit to the state's overall transportation system" if the rail project isn't completed.

Among them are the Los Angeles-Anaheim segment, another between San Jose and San Francisco and between Merced and San Jose.

Those stretches, officials said, could most easily be put into use if the entire system isn't built and have the best chance of generating sufficient ridership and revenue to avoid needing a state subsidy.

"The report is making the assumption that the country is not going through with high-speed rail, which is absolutely not true," said Steve Geil, president of the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation.

Once construction starts, Geil said, the public will support it because of the jobs and the economic impact -- especially here in the Valley.

At the same time, he said, there is significant opposition to the stretch between San Jose and San Francisco, and the Los Angeles segment would be nothing but a glorified commuter train.

The analyst's report said the assumption that the Central Valley segment would move quickly because of a lack of public opposition isn't correct. It cited "significant local opposition" from the agriculture community over the alignment of the tracks.

"You bet there's some opposition," said Madera County farmer Kole Upton. "It sounds like (the Legislative Analysts' Office has) a dose of common sense."

Geil, however, said only a "few in ag are upset," but the local opposition doesn't amount to much.

Because federal money for the project requires the line to start in the Central Valley, the report recommends the High-Speed Rail Authority seek flexibility from the federal government. The Legislature should proceed, the report said, "only if this flexibility is obtained from the federal government."

The report also recommends the California Department of Transportation take over day-to-day operations of the project, and that the Legislature strip the High-Speed Rail Authority's board of its decision-making powers. The report says the authority board lacks accountability to the governor or Legislature, and could make decisions that are not in the best interests of the state and its financial needs.

As part of that, the Legislature could eliminate the board or change state law to make it advisory only.

And the report devotes a significant amount of space to funding.

For instance, it said the authority's latest business plan assumes the state will receive $17 billion to $19 billion from the federal government for construction. But "given the federal government's current financial situation and the current focus in Washington on reducing federal spending, it is uncertain if any further funding for the high-speed rail program will become available," the report states.

It also said the state would incur additional debt from the sale of $9 billion in general obligation bonds approved by voters for the project.

Finally, the report questions the project's cost, currently pegged at $43 billion for the line connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles and Anaheim. For example, it said the cost of the Fresno-Bakersfield segment is now estimated to be $4.5 billion, an amount 57% greater than was estimated in the original plan.

Roelof van Ark, the California High-Speed Rail Authority's chief executive, issued a statement that the analyst's "suggestions will be thoroughly reviewed.

"I am eager to work with the Legislature for the successful completion of the state's high-speed rail system, something clearly desired -- in fact, mandated -- by Californians and supported by the federal government, which has significantly invested in this project," the statement said.