OCTA: Hold Funds Until High-Speed Rail Fixes Its Finances

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The Orange County Transportation Authority is set Monday to urge leaders of California’s proposed $98-billion high-speed rail project to slow down and fix the project’s financing problems before tapping into billions in state taxpayers dollars.

A draft letter scheduled for a vote by the OCTA’s 17-member board states it has “grave concern over what appears to be missing elements and unrealistic components of the [newest business] plan.”

“We urge the CHSRA [California High-Speed Rail Authority] to address the serious concerns regarding the Plan raised by the Legislative Analyst’s Office prior to submission of this plan to the Legislature.”

The Analyst’s Office is a nonpartisan advisor to the Legislature. Last month it issued a report that concluded the Anaheim-to-San Francisco high-speed rail project isn’t ready to ask the Legislature to approve spending $3 billion to lay the first 130 miles of track.

The Analyst’s report is the latest in a series of reports that have criticized the management and finances of the bullet-style train system. It led at least six of the OCTA board members last month to call for the full board to consider a no-confidence vote.

The High-Speed Rail Authority is trying to move ahead despite criticisms and concerted efforts in both California and Washington D.C. to kill the program. In addition, the nonpartisan Field Poll reported earlier this month that a majority of California voters no longer support the rail project and want a chance to vote on it again.

State rail officials have said they believe they are in compliance with state laws.

They’re taking public comment on the disputed draft business plan through December 31 and are supposed to present a final version to the Legislature in January.

After that, it’s up to members of the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown to decide whether to grant the initial construction money.

A lawsuit filed by the Kings County Board of Supervisors seeks to stop state officials from delivering the money until the rail authority has binding funding commitments from federal authorities and private investors.

Proposition 1A, which California voters approved in 2008, authorized about $9 billion for the project. The measure set stringent requirements for leaders to meet to ensure the project doesn’t become a financial burden to taxpayers.

According to the legislative analyst’s report, the rail project’s funding plan doesn’t meet the requirements of Proposition 1A at this point because, among other things, the segment it plans to start building in the Central Valley is too short to be used for high-speed trains. The law requires the project to identify all funding to complete a useable section, the report states.

The project has identified the $6 billion to build the short stretch of track but can’t say where it will get the total of $30 billion to build enough of a system to run high-speed trains. The $6 billion would come from state Proposition 1A and federal stimulus funds.

The High-Speed Rail Authority won’t have environmental impact studies completed by the planned start of construction in September 2012, another requirement of state law, according to the analyst.

Those studies are important because of issues like earthquake safety and the impact on communities and agriculture along the planned route.

The draft letter by OCTA states the “project has the potential to provide significant improvements to California’s transportation infrastructure, but must be done with prudent planning and judicious use of public funds.”

It urged the High-Speed Rail Authority to abandon its plan to begin construction in the Central Valley and instead use a “bookend” approach, starting in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas and moving toward the Valley.

That approach would ensure more riders would immediately begin using the trains, the draft letter said. It also commended state high-speed rail officials for switching to a “blended” approach, which initially integrates the system with existing commuter lines in the large urban areas of Northern and Southern California, including the Anaheim-to-Los Angeles corridor.

The draft noted that “the funding plan is largely speculative and lacks any firm commitment of funding beyond the initial construction section.”

The draft added that the high-speed rail’s funding plan puts it in direct competition with local rail agencies, including OCTA, for “scarce” federal rail and other transportation money.

In related issues, Will Kempton, chief executive officer of the Orange County Transportation Authority, also is chairman of the outside Peer Review Committee, which must report to the Legislature this month on its opinion of the project’s funding plan.

And in Washington D.C., the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is scheduled to hold a special hearing Thursday devoted solely to the California high-speed rail project. House Republicans have opposed additional financing for high-speed rail.

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracyVOC.

 

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