Supervisor Shawn Nelson at a county supervisors' meeting.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson says supporters of the problematic California high-speed rail project would face less criticism if they would “just be honest” about the financial realities confronting the $68-billion plan.

Nelson, whose district includes much of Anaheim, which is supposed to be the southern end of initial construction, said during an interview this week that he is being labeled an opponent of the rail project but instead is just pointing out that “we don’t have the money.”

No one other than high-speed rail “roadies” like consultants and others likely to financially benefit from the project are saying it’s financially feasible, said Nelson this week.

“The only analysis that says it makes sense is High-Speed Rail [Authority board members] themselves,” said Nelson, who also sits on the Orange County Transportation Authority board of directors. “There’s no sober person who looks at these facts that says this is a green light.”

“One hundred percent of the independent financial analysis has been the same trend,” he said. Reports in the past three years from the state’s independent Legislative Analyst’s Office, the state inspector general, state auditors and others have raised serious questions about where the state will get the money to complete the Anaheim-to-San Francisco rail system.

This week, the office released its latest report, which urged the Legislature to turn down Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to appropriate money this year to start initial construction.

“Funding for the project remains highly speculative and important details have not been sorted out,” the analyst’s report asserted. “We recommend the Legislature not approve the Governor’s various budget proposals to provide additional funding for the project.”

Nelson points to such reports to illustrate his point that it’s unfair for he, or anyone else who questions the viability of the program, to be labeled a high-speed rail “opponent.”

“No one’s giving me flak to my face,” he said. But, he asked, “why, if you’re honest, does it make you an opponent? I’m not against anything. I’m just realistic about what we have and what we don’t have.”

And, he added, “I’m supportive of what I think can be done,” like building a rail link between Bakersfield and Palmdale so that residents of the Central Valley can come by train to Southern California, something that isn’t possible now.

In 2008, voters approved $10 billion to begin construction of a 500-mile high-speed rail system. But the effort has been beset by management and financial problems.

Currently, according to testimony Wednesday at a state Senate subcommittee hearing in Sacramento, the project is being run without a chief executive officer, chief operating officer and other top staff. In addition, members of the High-Speed Rail Authority serve only part time.

Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), said at the end of the Senate subcommittee hearing this week that in coming months, lawmakers will take a coordinated approach to studying the wide range of issues that have been raised statewide about the project.

Since its approval by voters, the project has been blasted from Buena Park to Kings County and up to San Francisco for pushing aside local concerns about negative impacts.

“To date,” Simitian said, “I think it’s fair to say the [rail] authority has struggled, at best” to communicate with those who are directly affected by its planned routes.

When completed, the trains are supposed to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes. But witnesses told the state Senate subcommittee that the Rail Authority’s own documents show estimates that it will take at least three hours to make the trip.

Simitian, chairman of the subcommittee on Resources, Environmental Protection, Energy and Transportation, said the lack of leaders at the rail project raises “real questions about who’s in charge, who’s the client,” with contractors receiving millions of dollars for work without apparent strong state oversight.

The lack of leadership makes it unclear “who’s accountable,” said Simitian.

Lawmakers are making it increasingly clear they’re unlikely to decide until August whether to approve the initial state bond spending for the project.

Subcommittee discussion made it appear that if a compromise between Brown and legislators is possible, it could come from finding a different way to spend the initial state allocation. The current agreement between the rail authority and federal rail officials commits California to matching federal funds in a section of the Central Valley.

The Legislature never agreed to that plan, and some Democratic state senators have advocated spending the first state bond funds in areas that will see immediate ridership. Suggestions have included the sections in urban areas of Los Angeles and San Francisco or to begin constructing a rail link from Bakersfield to Palmdale. Currently, no passenger trains can travel between Los Angeles and Central Valley cities like Fresno.

But rail authority officials oppose using the state bond money for anything but a Central Valley section approved by federal authorities.

Federal tax funds are reserved for a 130-mile segment in the Central Valley that critics have dubbed “the train to nowhere,” because there is no assurance it ever will connect to anything else. Supporters argue it is part of a “backbone” that must be built early.

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