Internal ‘chaos’ adds to rough year for bullet-train agency

The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s rough year continues with the departure of another top executive at the agency overseeing the state’s $64 billion bullet-train project.

Jon Tapping, the agency’s director of risk management since 2012, is leaving, the Los Angeles Times reported in a story that quoted an unnamed agency official describing internal “chaos.” Authority Chief Executive Jeff Morales left in June. Morales’ second-in-command, Dennis Trujillo, quit in late 2016.

This leaves the authority with three high-profile vacancies as it tries to move ahead with a long-troubled project that’s taken a series of hits throughout 2017. Among the bad news:

– On Oct. 1, the Times printed a report that internal authority documents showed the initial 119-mile segment being built in the Central Valley would cost $8 billion, 27 percent more than the authority’s public declarations that the segment would cost $6.3 billion. The overrun estimate may prove low. In January, documents surfaced that showed federal rail officials expected an overrun in the 50 percent range.

– On Sept. 24, a critical Fresno Bee analysis showed how the authority’s original plan to complete a Merced-to-Bakersfield segment by Sept. 30, 2017, had long since been abandoned because of the authority’s unrealistic expectations about how quickly property could be obtained and environmental approvals be secured. The analysis also cited ongoing lawsuits. The Bee noted that the starting date for passenger service was now projected to be 2025 – 17 years after California voters approved $9.95 billion in bond seed money for the project, initially estimated to cost $32 billion.

Court ruling clears way for potent CEQA lawsuits

– On July 27, the California Supreme Court overturned a lower-court ruling and said state-owned rail projects were not completely exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act and other state environmental laws. The case involved another state project besides the bullet train, but legal analysts said there was no question it would apply.

CEQA has been a powerful tool against projects large and small in California for decades. The state Supreme Court ruling paves the way for a wave of CEQA lawsuits by deep-pocketed interest groups against now-pending environmental impact reports for bullet-train segments in Silicon Valley and the Los Angeles area.

Even individual citizens without high-powered legal teams can stall projects using CEQA. San Francisco’s plan to add bicycle lanes to encourage bicycle commuting was delayed for five years by a self-described “dishwasher from Mendocino.”

– On July 17, the Legislature approved a measure to extend the state’s emissions cap-and-trade program by 10 years, with a handful of Republicans providing crucial support after then-Assembly GOP leader Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley secured support for a provision that could eventually halt the bullet-train project.

“The concession … places a constitutional amendment drafted by Mayes before state voters in June 2018,” CalWatchdog reported in July. “If passed, it would lead to a one-time up-and-down vote in the Legislature in 2024 on whether to continue allowing the use of cap-and-trade revenue to fund the project. But the threshold wouldn’t be a simple majority. A two-thirds vote would be required to allow continued use of the funds – presumably giving GOP lawmakers a prime chance to pull the plug.

This amounts to a bet that the bad news about the project would continue. With the exodus of top staff, the confirmation of major cost overruns and the new certainty about another round of legal challenges, so far that’s what’s come to pass.

Train company owned by Germany may win key contract

Rail authority officials, however, say critics of the project ignore the steady progress it is making, with more than 400 small businesses and 1,400-plus “craft workers” proceeding in building the initial segment.

The rail authority board is likely to make a crucial decision at its meeting Thursday. DB Engineering & Consulting USA, a subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn AG, is expected to be given a $30 million contract to design and operate the initial segment from San Jose to the Central Valley.

Deutsche Bahn AG, which is owned by the German government, is competing with companies from Spain, Italy and China for the contract. In 2015, it was the world’s largest railway company based on revenue and the ninth-biggest carrier of global freight, according to industry reports.

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.

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