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OP-ED: High-speed rail project needs to be audited
December 30, 2011, 04:42 AM

There are many missing elements to California’s high-speed rail proposal, but the most glaring one is honesty. What is needed before any further action is taken is a realistic, accurate audit by a nonpartisan watchdog agency that has no stake in the development or abandonment of the rail project.

That is what congressional Republicans are calling for in the wake of growing concern about the high cost of the project, dubious ridership estimates, inflated job-creation projections, unrealistic funding expectations, legal questions and broad deviation from the bond measure that won voter support in 2008.

Understandably, the members of Congress want to see if it makes financial sense to spend tens of billions of federal tax dollars on a highly questionable high-speed rail system in California.

It’s not only Republicans who are wary of going ahead with such a huge project burdened with so many uncertainties.

Many Democrats in the Legislature also are backing away from the high-speed rail project.

We are convinced that the latest business plan for the high-speed rail system is so flawed that it needs an independent analysis, which a nonpartisan audit could and should provide.

Even more problematic is that the rail plan now under consideration is vastly different from the one presented to voters in 2008.

Not only has the cost estimate more than doubled, but the route has dramatically changed, leaving out rail lines to Sacramento and San Diego.

There is no compelling reason to move ahead now with construction of an initial phase of the rail system in the Central Valley.

There is no early start date deadline on the state bond money or the matching funds from Washington.

Furthermore, the Central Valley is the wrong place to begin a high-speed rail project. The initial route should be in a high-density region with traffic congestion, such as the Los Angeles to San Diego corridor.

Successful high-speed rail operations in Japan and France each began in the most densely populated areas of those nations.

The closer we look at the rail project, which we doubted was viable form the beginning, the worse it looks in terms of ever having nearly enough ridership potential to attract the needed private investment.

The job-creation estimates, in which real jobs and job-years have been conflated, raise more questions. The fact is that only a few thousand workers will be employed on the project at any one time.

Besides, money spent on other more worthwhile transportation or any public works projects would create as many jobs as a high-speed rail system.

Before any more money is wasted on the rail project, a comprehensive, independent audit needs to be done. Then a new vote on rail bonds must be held. Unfortunately, some supporters of the high-speed rail project fear that a vote would kill the project.

We agree with them about the likely outcome of a vote, especially after an accurate independent audit reveals the gross inadequacies of the current business plan.

We trust that given proper information, voters would be able to discern the differences between a fantasy and a realistic vision and would derail what promises to be a costly mistake.

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