High speed rail project on the hot seat

December 6, 2011 12:27:33 AM PST
California's controversial high speed rail project was the subject of a Senate committee hearing Monday in Sacramento. The price tag for the project has nearly doubled to $100 billion and $12 million has already been spent on PR.

"I think we're at a critical time in the life of the project," said St. Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto.

In the coming months, a state joint committee will be deciding the fate of California's High Speed Rail. The next five state budgets will contain a new line item for the project and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are very nervous about the now $100 billion dollar inflation-adjusted price tag -- twice the original estimate. Voters only approved a $10 billion bond in 2008.

"There is no commitment from the federal government, no commitment from the private sector. I think those are serious questions that need to be answered," said St. Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach.

The High Speed Rail Authority continues to be optimistic. The feds are already providing more than $3 billion in stimulus money, mandating that the first segment start in the jobs-depressed Central Valley, near Modesto to Bakersfield. The state will match that to complete the 130-mile stretch. Lawmakers worry if other money doesn't come through to build the rest of the system, it'd be a train to nowhere.

"Is the proposal that's on the table for the Central Valley worth $6 billion dollars and what do we get for that?" said Simitian.

"Then we would have a section that Amtrak could use, which would shave 45 minutes off the transit time that exists today," said Tom Umberg from the California High Speed Rail Authority.

And there are revelations the High Speed Rail Authority spent more than $12 million on public relations and many of those contracts going to politically connected consultants.

"A lot of that PR money has been misspent, in my view, as opposed to spending it on community outreach," said St. Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord.

The authority insists those contracts were for community outreach, still the spending is not sitting well with taxpayer groups.

"We have suspected all along that the majority of funding spent by the High Speed Rail Authority has been going towards all kinds of things other than actually building a railroad," said Jon Coupal from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers' Association.

For every year the high speed rail project is delayed, the price goes up about $2-3 billion.


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