ANALYSIS: Fast track to nowhere?

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | 1/6/2012

How much is too much? A proposed high-speed rail line that would link San Francisco and Los Angeles is quickly becoming a boondoggle thanks to an escalating price tag and the gusto of some government officials to get it built even if it means deceiving the public about it.

During a recent hearing of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee about the project and its costs, committee member Rep. Jeff Denham, R-CA, took Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo to task over the line of communication between federal and state agencies.

The state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office recently recommended California scrap the sale of bonds that voters approved in 2008 and scuttle the rail project. Somehow, the Federal Railroad Administration continues to push the project and throw money at it.

Szabo stated during the hearing that he had no contact with the Legislative Analyst’s Office. He even insisted that the analyst’s office “has not chosen to engage us at all in any discussion, not one …”

But a few days after the hearing, Denham received a letter from the Legislative Analyst’s Office stating that what the administrator said was not true.

“The administrator, Szabo, said that they absolutely have not received any communications from the LAO, and the LAO sent us a letter saying that is completely false,” Denham told Land Line.

In the letter, which Denham provided to Land Line, the legislative analyst himself, Mac Taylor, alerts Szabo about the misstatement.

“It is very unfortunate that you so egregiously misstated the facts in such a public forum,” Taylor stated.

The debacle over communication prompted the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to request records of correspondence between the federal and state agencies to see what was said and when.

“We feel that (the administrator has) been deceptive under oath, and we’re now requesting the records of communication between the two agencies,” Denham told Land Line.

“I certainly believe that the administration wants this at any cost, no matter what it costs or what they have to do to get it, and that’s certainly the wrong way to go with our tax dollars. There’s only so many transportation dollars available, and if high-speed rail is not a worthy project, we need to make sure that those funds continue to go to improve our roads.”

California voters approved the sale of $2.7 billion in bonds in 2008 to get the rail project started. Back then, the estimated project cost was $43 billion. Since the bond approval, the project’s estimate cost has escalated to $98.5 billion, a 129-percent increase.

Denham said that’s not something taxpayers agreed to in 2008.

“The California taxpayers want their dollars back from the bond or would certainly like to re-vote on it,” he said. “And I think from a national perspective, when the rest of the nation finds out that $82 billion of their tax dollars are going to go to California, I think they’re going to be outraged as well. I think it’s time to kill this project and use those dollars elsewhere.”

So far, the federal government has committed $3.6 billion to the project, Denham said, but still hasn’t put a shovel in the ground.

Denham said transportation funding should be focused on goods movement.

“In areas where we have the greatest congestion with the greatest need to move goods, those should be the areas we focus on first to make sure that not only we’re moving our goods throughout the nation but creating jobs in the process,” he said.

California has nearly 7,100 deficient or obsolete bridges, while San Francisco County ranks second only to Pittsburgh, PA, in terms of the number of bridges that need to be repaired or replaced.

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