Bullet train roundup: CEO out as project faces lawsuit and federal threats

The chief executive of the California High-Speed Rail Authority – former Caltrans director Jeff Morales – is resigning in June from the agency after five years overseeing the state’s $64 billion bullet train project.

The announcement Friday prompted Gov. Jerry Brown and others to praise Morales for leading the authority during a contentious period in which it managed to break ground on the bullet train’s system initial 118-mile segment but struggled to find funding that would actually allow for construction of a statewide network. That’s what voters were promised in 2008 when they approved Proposition 1A, which provided $9.95 billion in bond seed money to a project then estimated to cost $43 billion.

But the timing of Morales’ departure could lead to a melancholy final two months on the job for the rail executive if House Republicans get their way. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and the other 13 California House GOP members have launched a several-pronged front to try to get the Trump administration to prevent already-committed federal dollars from ever being spent on the project.

Their most visible effort came in February. That’s when their lobbying was seen as prompting Transportation Secretary Elaine Chow to put on hold a promise made late in the Obama administration to provide $647 million to electrify tracks in Silicon Valley leading to San Francisco – a crucial part of the governor’s plan to have a “blended” system of high-speed and regular rail.

Key Obama administration decisions could be rolled back

But California House Republicans also want to “claw back” some of the funding and procedural decisions in Washington made related to the project. This push received an unexpected boost in the final weeks of the Obama presidency when a confidential Federal Railroad Administration report was leaked to the Los Angeles Times. It predicted the first segment of the bullet train that the rail authority had long said would cost $6.4 billion could instead cost $9.5 billion to $10 billion.

Based on this evidence of dubious management and on the rail authority’s inability to attract investors – raising questions about financing – the U.S. Transportation Department appears to have grounds to rescind decisions made in 2009 and 2012 that enabled the project to end up getting about $3 billion in federal funds.

The 2009 decision was the original DOT move to make the California bullet-train project eligible for federal funding from the massive omnibus stimulus bill adopted soon after President Obama took office. The decision required an analysis concluding the project was properly funded and had responsible and thorough planning that substantiated expectations of success.

The 2012 decision was in the form of an agreement that allowed California to bypass the tradition of state and federal infrastructure projects being jointly funded on a dollar-for-dollar basis. Instead, California was allowed for at least three years to get an advance on federal dollars in return for guaranteeing eventual matching funds – totaling $200 million as of June 2015. The federal government has the authority to demand the state match what it has already spent before allowing another dollar to go California’s way.

Is new state law a tweak or a ‘material’ change?

A revocation of these bullet-train-friendly decisions isn’t the only possible twist that Morales faces in his final two months on the job.

Central Valley farmer John Tos, Kings County, the city of Atherton and several other Central Valley groups – the same coalition that previously filed, with some success, legal challenges against the state project – may have their first hearing this week on a new lawsuit in Sacramento Superior Court. (A previous hearing scheduled for last week was delayed, so another delay is possible.)

The lawsuit challenges the legality of the December vote of the California High-Speed Rail Authority to authorize the selling of $3.2 billion in state bonds for the project under the authority granted it by Assembly Bill 1889, a measure by Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, that was enacted last year. It loosened bond-spending restrictions in Proposition 1A, the 2008 measure funding the rail project.

Mullin and other Democrats depicted the change as a routine tweak in the law. Attorneys for Tos, Kings County and Atherton will seek an injunction against any sale of the bonds on the grounds that there is no provision in Proposition 1A allowing for it to be subsequently “materially” altered by the California Legislature.

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

Related Articles

Transparency activists seek CA sunshine

  National Sunshine Week — an effort to increase and encourage government transparency — has come and gone in California

CA secessionists set for Sacramento rally

  Proving out the maxim that some things never go out of style however unpopular they are, a group of

Video: Would a flat tax make CA’s comeback last?

CalWatchdog.com editor-in-chief Brian Calle discusses the California economic comeback with writer Stephen Moore.