Tough Times, But Caltrans Wants More

JAN. 28, 2011


Despite the need for sizable cutbacks to the state budget, Caltrans and the High Speed Rail Authority asked for more money this week from the Legislature to purchase new cars, to cover increasing fuel costs, for additional job creation and to pay for high-speed rail consultants. Assembly members were less than thrilled with the high-dollar requests, and took Caltrans and high-speed rail representatives to task at the hearing.

Caltrans director Cindy McKim appealed to the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on a number of big budget items, requesting more than 636 new vehicles to replace older vehicles in order to comply with California’s air quality mandates, an additional $1.63 million for higher-than-expected fuel costs, more than 30 new job positions, and $3 million dollars for high speed rail public relations and oversight positions.

Committee Chairman Richard Gordon, D-Menlo Park, showed irritation at times during the hearing when it became apparent that Caltrans had not done internal auditing of the requests, and was requesting more money than was needed or warranted for some projects.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office also expressed concern about the costly air quality mandates required of Caltrans, and suggested that Caltrans and California Air Resources Board officials work together to come up with more financially reasonable compliance measures, before making additional funding requests to the Legislature.

“This is more costly than it needs to be,” LAO analyst Jessica Digiambattista said. She said that there have been several other costly CARB mandates Caltrans has been required to adhere to, one of which was estimated to cost $57 million, when the actual cost was $11 million. The committee did not approve the LAO’s recommendation to reject the car purchase request, but voted instead to defer the issue to a later date.

The committee requested more information from Caltrans on the $1.63 million for additional funding for anticipated fuel costs. “I’d like to know what the fuel costs actually entail,” said Gordon after the LAO recommended that the request be held open until the Legislature is provided actual fuel prices.

However, legislators haggled the most over the request of $3 million from the High Speed Rail Authority. HSRA Executive Director Roelof Van Ark gave an overview and update of the rail project, which included an accelerated timeline, slated for completion in 2017.

Van Ark said the need for additional funds was so that the rail authority could contract with a public relations firm and accounting firm to oversee the hiring of engineers and environmental consultants as they proceed with groundbreaking plans scheduled for 2012.

But Gordon asked for more detail before the committee could grant the request. “You need to justify for me why you need $3 million from us. I want very specific information on what that $3 million would go for,” said Gordon.

“Your answer will be coming to you,” Van Ark responded.

“It’s hard to get my head around the lack of a bigger game plan,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. “I would feel a lot better if I knew some of the funding was not going to the cottage industry of consultants right now.”

California has already collected nearly $4 billion in federal money for a project that Van Ark said is expected to cost at least $43 billion, but there is little detail available on the full scope of the rail plan. According to van Ark, the schedule push is dictated by the federal government, and delays would only cost California some of the federal funding.

Central Valley Democratic Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani said her district is “clamoring for the completed rail project. The Central Valley wants it very badly.” Galgiani said that high-speed rail has always had support from the Legislature, and even passed it with a two-thirds vote.

“I was one of those votes,” said Huffman, “but it’s not a blank check.”

Newly elected Republican Assemblyman David Valadao said the voters in his district oppose the project. “I don’t know if we can even afford it right now,” said the Hanford Republican. “I am also in the Central Valley and my district opposes it.”

Valadao expressed his concern over the rail agency’s growing cost estimates, up to $43 billion from the $30 billion approved by voters, and suggested that voters were tricked into approving the measure.

“And I am hearing many stories about the accounting practices in the agency,” added Valadao.

Van Ark assured Valadao that corrective action had been taken to improve accounting practices. “We only have 17 staff. It’s a huge task to do outreach and communications to stakeholders.”

The committee voted to defer a decision on the funding request until sometime in the spring.

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