Attempted $1B cover-up can’t even crack Top 5 of bullet-train outrages

by Chris Reed | May 9, 2014 6:30 am

crazy.trainWith any big public works project, a report[1] that an independent consultant had been pressured by the responsible government agency to hide a nearly $1 billion increase in project cost is absolutely outrageous. Pathetically enough, when it comes to the bullet train and the California High-Speed Rail Authority, it’s far from the worst outrage.

Here’s my short account[2] of the latest CHSRA ugliness:

“According to the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the estimated cost of building the 114-mile bullet-train route linking Fresno and Bakersfield has gone up $940 million — from $6.19 billion to $7.13 billion.

“That’s worrisome enough. But what makes it worse is that state officials allegedly didn’t want this 15 percent increase to be made public.

“URS Corp. — the San Francisco engineering firm hired to determine the updated cost — reportedly complained in March that it had been ‘instructed’ by the authority to have its numbers be in line with what was projected in the bullet train’s 2012 business plan. URS refused in a carefully worded message that clearly implied the authority wanted it to violate state ethical guidelines for licensed professionals.

“Authority officials deny wrongdoing. But after years of deceptive projections and misleading rhetoric, it’s easy to believe they would pressure a consultant to avoid an embarrassing headline.”

An appalling outrage — just not Top 5 material

If you think I’m crazy for not considering this a major outrage, you’re getting me wrong. It IS a major outrage. But when it comes to the bullet train, there are a ridiculous number of outrages. As bad as a $940 million cover-up is, I don’t think it cracks the top 5.

My list:

5. Gov. Jerry Brown’s juvenile and unprofessional defamation[3] of people who are deeply skeptical about the bullet train as being dumb “declinists” who dislike progress — as opposed to people who can read what the LAO, the state auditor and independent experts have written about the project’s managerial incompetence and its likelihood of failing. I actually think there’s a good chance the state is trying to lose the ongoing lawsuit seeking to block the project; why else would the AG’s office file a “remedies” brief that offered no remedies[4] for the project’s legal shortcomings? But just based on the surface narrative — on what comes out of his mouth — Brown’s hucksterish, clownish attempt to make the bullet-train fight some sort of morality play in which he holds the high ground is unforgivable. It’s prevented a rational debate over what is the right thing to do.

4. The passage of the $9.95 billion in 2008 Proposition 1A bond funds was accomplished with the political-gangster tactic of the Legislature writing the insanely dishonest ballot language for it — something that later led to a state appellate court’s harsh rebuke[5] of lawmakers, a sweeping ruling that banned them from even considering any such future mendacity. That’s pretty amazing — one branch of government telling another branch of government that its behavior was so beyond the pale that it had lost the right to do something as important as writing ballot language. I can’t think of any precedent at the federal level.

california-high-speed-rail-04-lg3. The Obama administration completely ignoring[6] the federal guidelines published in June 2009 that required stimulus funds only go to capital projects with viable business plans that had identified the funding sources that would be necessary to complete those projects. More than $3 billion in federal taxpayer dollars remain committed to a $68 billion project that has what amounts to this for its current business plan: A prayer that Congress and the White House give the state $55 billion more in federal taxpayer dollars, because no one else will give the project a dime.

2. The $68 billion project as now proposed isn’t remotely a bullet train from downtown L.A. to downtown San Francisco. It’s a bullet train from San Jose to the distant northern edges of L.A., with transfers to much slower trains for 50-mile additional slogs on both ends. It easily will take four hours or more — not the legally mandated 160 minutes[7] — to get from downtown L.A. to downtown S.F. This is why the “father of the bullet train” now calls it a farce[8].

1. Before the November 2008 vote on Prop. 1A, the rail authority — pleading a lack of time because of delays in passing the state budget — never produced a business plan for the project, breaking a state law[9] that required the plan be released before the election. Within days after 1A’s passage, it released the plan. With 1,000 percent clairvoyance, the document stated private investors who were being counted on for tens of billions of dollars were unlikely to come forward without revenue or ridership guarantees — which were illegal under Prop 1A because such guarantees amounted to a promise of subsidies if things went awry. This means voters were asked to bless a hugely costly project that sponsors knew could never be financed in the way voters were promised. This abject deception foreshadowed everything we’ve seen since.

  1. report:
  2. short account:
  3. unprofessional defamation:
  4. offered no remedies:
  5. harsh rebuke:
  6. completely ignoring:
  7. legally mandated 160 minutes:
  8. farce:
  9. breaking a state law:

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