The CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority has responded to a critical report issued by the state Legislative Analyst's Office last month, calling the study flawed and saying legislative action on its recommendations would end the rail project and jeopardize almost $4 billion in federal funding.
In a letter sent last week to state Senate and Assembly leaders, Authority CEO Roelof van Ark called the LAO's recommendations "drastic" and said they would "effectively end the largest infrastructure project in our state's history."
"The LAO has made several observations and drastic recommendations which would result in irreparable harm to this project," said van Ark. "We are also concerned that the LAO in this instance neither consulted with the High-Speed Rail Authority, nor apparently with high-speed rail experts. Clearly this untimely report threatens the continuation of this important project."
Eric Thronson, the policy analyst who wrote the LAO report, said his agency did meet with the authority.
"That is 100 percent untrue," Thronson said.
Thronson also took particular issue with an assertion by van Ark that newspaper editorials called the report "just politics."
"That is one of the things we have a very serious problem with," Thronson said. "That [claim] is ridiculous and unreasonable. Our office is well-known to be fair and balanced and not political. For anyone to imply that we are politically motivated is very insulting."
The 28-page LAO report, issued May 10 and titled "High Speed Rail is at a Critical Juncture," harshly criticized the authority and made a number of sweeping recommendations to the state Legislature, including:
l Rejecting the authority's $185 million budget request and restricting funding to $7 million to cover administrative tasks.
l Renegotiating the terms of federal rail funding mandates to allow more flexibility.
l Reconsidering the decision to start the project in the Central Valley and instead considering other segments in urban areas with higher ridership.
l Shifting the day-to-day responsibility for the project away from the authority to Caltrans.
The report by the LAO, a nonpartisan office that provides fiscal and policy information and advice to the state Legislature, also said the authority lacks proper governance, that future funding for the project is "highly uncertain," and the Legislature lacks enough information to make "critical multi-billion-dollar decisions about the project that it will soon face."
Van Ark responded in detail to the four key recommendations. He noted the Legislature has already approved the rail authority's funding request, making the recommendation to strip funding moot. He did say that if funding cuts are implemented, it would cause the loss of talented consultants because they would be shifted to high-speed rail projects in other states.
He said officials with the Federal Rail Administration have issued a "resounding no" to a request for more flexibility. He said altering the authority's role and giving project responsibility to Caltrans would threaten the project schedule and give the public less transparency.
Van Ark also disagreed strongly with suggestions that the first leg of the project start outside the Central Valley.
"To suggest beginning the construction of a high-speed rail system in the urban ‘end sections' shows a misunderstanding of what high-speed rail is all about and how high-speed rail is developed," said van Ark.
He said the urban sections are not "real" high-speed rail because the trains travel at a maximum speed of 90-125 mph rather than 220 mph. Starting in the relatively flat Central Valley would also allow the trains to be tested and proven prior to their use in other U.S. high-speed rail projects.
"No other test possibility exists for real high-speed rail in the whole of the USA," van Ark said.
Thronson said that doesn't take into account the financial situation.
"It may come down to the funding question: Do you believe we're going to get significant funding from somewhere or not?" he said. "Our office has concluded that is highly uncertain. If we are only going to spend $6 [billion] to $6.5 billion, there may be a better way to spend that money."
The LAO is not planning to respond to the van Ark letter or issue any additional high-speed rail recommendations, Thronson said, unless asked to do so by the Legislature.
The reporters can be reached at 583-2432 or 583-2423.