Panel: High Speed Rail Plans Not Fully Cooked

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Will this artist's depiction of high speed rail in California come to pass? A new report raises questions. (Image: CA High Speed Rail Authority)

A panel of independent reviewers says that without more certainty on funding and operations, any start to construction of a high speed rail system "represents an immense financial risk to the state of California."

The new report is further proof that 2012 will be the most important year yet in the debate over the ambitious but costly bullet train system.

The report was issued Tuesday by the California High Speed Rail Peer Review Group, a panel of experts created by legislative action in 2008 to take an independent look at the ultimate plans crafted by the state's High Speed Rail Authority.

And while the group admits that it still doesn't have the information to render a final judgment, it doesn't seem to like what it's seen.

"Absent a clearer picture of where future funding is going to come from, the Peer Review Group cannot at this time recommend that the Legislature approve the appropriation of bond proceeds for this project," says the eight page report signed by panel chairman Will Kempton.

The report takes aim at both what's known and what's not known -- which means it will no doubt offer fodder for both critics and skeptics around the Capitol.

For starters, the peer panel points out the high risk to beginning construction in the Central Valley, a portion of track it says would not be electrified and no "independent" functionality if the entire north-to-south system fails to materialize.

The panel also rejects comparisons with major infrastructure projects from the past, like the U.S. interstate highway system or airports. "These programs were supported by authorizing legislation that had a dedicated funding source primarily dependent on user fees," they write.

From there, they raise additional concerns about the chances of finding the total amount needed, now pegged at about $98 billion:

The fact that the [high speed rail authority's] funding plan fails to identify any long term funding commitments is a fundamental flaw in the program. Without committed funds, a mega-project of this nature could be forced to halt construction for many years before additional funding could be obtained.

The panel is also critical of the number of decisions being made by the state-run authority and not left to the future actual operators of the train system; the ridership projections, which it calls "unverifiable"; and the estimates of the actual costs, which include complicated and costly blending with existing urban light rail systems.

On that final concern, the panel notes that the high-seed rail draft business plan offers no high/low range for the initial construction segment in the Central Valley, just a flat $6 billion estimate. "Given that there has been no construction experience at all, and considering the fact that the route is not yet fully defined, this appears unreasonable in itself."

Again, it's important to note the caveat -- namely, that the panel says a finalized business plan from the California High Speed Rail Authority will help answer some of the big questions. But with critics of the project now coming at it from all directions -- cost, feasibility, planning, routing, and more -- the new report will no doubt stir the simmering pot of questions about whether the Legislature should sign off on selling state bonds, bonds which will ultimately be paid back by the taxpayers through the state's general fund.

Update 3:49 p.m. Statement from Roelof van Ark, CEO of the High Speed Rail Authority" "It is unfortunate that the Peer Review Committee has delivered a report to the Legislature that is deeply flawed in its understanding of the Authority's program... As someone involved in many of the successful high speed rail programs internationally, I can say that the recommendations of this Committee simply do not reflect a real world view of what it takes to bring such projects to fruition."

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • Bill Hough

    Did Roelof van Ark back up his statement with real examples of how the report is “deeply flawed in its understanding of the Authority’s program?”

    If not, Van Ark’s statement is pure nonsense and should be ignored.

  • John Myers, KQED

    To be fair, the response was truncated for both brevity and because it came in late. I’ve uploaded to Scribd the rail authority’s full response to the Legislature. It’s at