High-speed rail agency lacks leader at crucial juncture

by Chris Reed | June 20, 2017 9:27 am

Four months after then-California High Speed Rail Authority Chief Executive Jeff Morales told authority board members he was moving on and two months after Morales made his decision public, the agency overseeing the state’s $64 billion bullet train project hasn’t settled on his successor.

In 2012, four months after Chief Executive Roelof van Ark abruptly left following two stormy years, Morales already had the job[1]. This time around, the same speedy selection process seemed likely. The RT&S transportation industry website reported [2]after Morales’ decision was announced in April that the board was likely to have his replacement approved before Morales’ final day of June 2.

But the CHSRA board met in closed session [3]on the succession issue on May 10 and June 14 without reaching a decision. The rail agency’s number two job – deputy chief executive – has also been vacant since Dennis Trujillo left in December.

The empty slots atop the CHSRA power structure come at a critical time.

According to a federal report prepared under the Obama administration, the state’s high-speed rail project is already seven years behind schedule[4] and on its way to having a 50 percent cost overrun on the $6.4 billion, 118-mile first segment now being built in the Central Valley.

The project also continues to face legal challenges which argue that it violates the terms of Proposition 1A[5], the 2008 ballot measure providing $9.95 billion in bond seed money for the project. The rail authority has won most recent judgments. But opponents remain confident they eventually will prevail because of a 2014 state appellate court ruling that held the project still was subject to a financial “straitjacket[6]” that would require it to show short- and long-term financial viability without public subsidies before the project could significantly proceed. The project’s struggle to attract private investment[7] shows that at least in the private sector, there are many doubts that the bullet train could operate successfully without such subsidies.

Obama administration rules could haunt project

But the election of Donald Trump as president in November also has led to a huge new headache for CHSRA. All 14 California House Republicans have urged[8] Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to reverse Obama administration actions that loosened federal rules to give California access to about $3 billion in federal dollars for the project.

Rep. Jeff Dunman, R-Turlock, and his colleagues have focused their harshest fire on a 2012 decision that gave the state the go-ahead[9] to spend about $200 million in federal funds but not have matching state spending. The decision went against longstanding Washington precedent.

Withdrawing all federal funding could also be justified by citing the Obama administration’s 2009 regulations for projects that were to be paid for or partly paid for with money from the economic stimulus bill passed a month after President Obama took office. The Federal Railroad Administration rules said[10] projects that didn’t demonstrate “reasonableness of financial estimates” and “quality of planning process” would get no funding.

That’s the same agency which recently concluded [11]the project was seven years behind schedule and on course for a 50 percent cost overrun on its initial segment

The California High Speed Rail Authority board’s next meeting[12] is July 18 in Sacramento.

Endnotes:
  1. had the job: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2012/05/bullet-train-board-picks-former-caltrans-director-as-new-ceo.html
  2. reported : http://www.rtands.com/index.php/track-maintenance/off-track-maintenance/california-high-speed-rail-authority-announces-executive-transition.html
  3. met in closed session : http://www.hsr.ca.gov/Board/monthly_brdmtg.html
  4. seven years behind schedule: http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-bullet-cost-overruns-20170106-story.html
  5. Proposition 1A: https://ballotpedia.org/California_Proposition_1A,_High-Speed_Rail_Act_(2008)
  6. straitjacket: http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/california/California-High-Speed-Rail-Opponents-Aim-to-Overturn-Lower-Court-Ruling-Allowing-Bullet-Train-Project-273644721.html
  7. struggle to attract private investment: http://www.laweekly.com/news/californias-bullet-train-could-be-a-high-speed-fail-without-federal-funding-7988989
  8. have urged: http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-bullet-train-attack-20170315-story.html
  9. gave the state the go-ahead: http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-bullet-amendment-20150611-story.html
  10. rules said: https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2009-06-23/html/E9-14692.htm
  11. concluded : http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-bullet-cost-overruns-20170106-story.html
  12. next meeting: http://www.hsr.ca.gov/Board/mtg_sched.html

Source URL: http://calwatchdog.com/2017/06/20/high-speed-rail-agency-lacks-leader-crucial-juncture/