California

“Fantasyland plan”: Patterson, GOP lambaste high-speed rail proposal

The latest in a long line of business plans for California’s struggling high-speed rail system is not up to par for members of California’s Republican Assembly Caucus. 

California’s much-maligned High Speed Rail Authority presented its most recent business plan to the Assembly Budget Subcommittee that oversees transportation projects. 

After the meeting, Asm. Jim Patterson (R–Fresno) said it was the worst business plan he has seen the authority ever present. 

“I sat through the presentation of the fantasyland plan and was astounded to learn that this plan includes no budget, no test trains, and no station for Fresno,” Patterson said in a statement. 

“This ‘business plan’ effectively tells the Legislature to provide the money first, then the Authority will decide how to spend it. No budget is provided for completing work already underway or scheduled to begin this year.” 

The plan was released earlier in February and revealed that the price tag for the project has risen by another $5 billion from two years ago, bringing the total cost to $105 billion. Initially, when voters approved high-speed rail in 2008, the total cost was expected to be between $33-40 billion. 

Patterson joined his Republican colleagues in signing a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom Thursday to express disappointment with the plan. 

“Despite all the grandiose promises outlined in the Business Plan, we can all agree that a project left unfinished and abandoned provides no benefits – zero ridership, zero emissions reductions, and zero economic impact,” the letter reads. “Unfortunately, without drastic and urgent changes, this is how the project is doomed to end, hence wasting billions of precious taxpayers’ dollars.” 

Specifically, Assembly Republicans took issue with High-Speed Rail Authority not providing a budget for work that is already underway or scheduled to begin this year, as well as arguing that the current proposal is simply not affordable. 

The business plan proposes an extension to the 119-mile Madera to Shafter line to include Merced and Bakersfield, expanding to a 171-mile segment. 

A major issue the Assembly Republicans raised is their argument that the cost of construction will be higher than expected to complete the Merced to Bakersfield segment. 

“The cost estimates provided are very preliminary based on minimal design,” the letter reads. “The Business Plan notes that based on typical cost estimates for this level of design, cost projections for the Merced and Bakersfield extensions could be off by as much as 50% and cost projections for track work could be off by as much as 100%.” 

Assembly Republicans also pointed out that the Authority did not submit a schedule for when the current 119-mile segment will be completed. 

The last point of contention Assembly Republicans discussed is the lack of transparency and accountability surrounding the project. 

They asked Newsom to reveal the value of pending change orders for the project and argued that governance of the project is broken because the 11-member board of directors has delegated all of its approval authority for contract change orders and time extensions to the Authority’s management, resulting in oversight over such change orders being reduced to a brief board notification at meetings. 

“In your first State of the State address more than three years ago, you addressed high-speed rail, declaring that ‘there’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency,’ and you promised that ‘we’re going to hold contractors and consultants accountable to explain how taxpayer dollars are spent.’ We believe that this situation has not improved,” the letter reads. 

“The final Business Plan must therefore outline fundamental reforms to project oversight, transparency, and governance that are necessary to bring costs and schedule under control.” 
The full letter can be found here.

Daniel Gligich is a reporter for The San Joaquin Valley Sun, focusing on Fresno State Athletics and the southern San Joaquin Valley. Email him at daniel.gligich@sjvsun.com.