By Noel T. Braymer

On the California High Speed Rail Blog is a link to a video of the Assembly Budget Committee meeting on January 27th with Dan Richard, Chair and Jeff Morales, CEO of the California High Speed Rail Authority. Watching this video it is clear that the media missed or misrepresented much of what was said. It is almost 90 minutes long but it gives a clear idea of how the project is going.

This is only the first of several meeting at the legislature coming up that will review the 2016 CHSRA’s Business Plan. Neither Messrs. Richard or Morales could comment on specifics of the new Business Plan since the CHSRA Board hasn’t even approved the current draft. But there were lots of questions by the Budget Committee members about budget overruns on the project and if it was going to San Jose first and how long it will take to finish. The CHSRA representatives made the point that construction bids are coming in under budget and they expect this to continue. The current budget for the San Francisco-Anaheim segment is $68 billion. Richard said he can’t give a number of what the new estimate will be, but that it will be lower in the 2016 Business Plan than the old estimate. Richard made the point that the current budget of $68 billion has over $10 billion for contingencies. So even if different segments went over budget while most of the project stayed or were under budget, the entire project would still be on or under budget.

What Richard said about the recent LA Times article claiming predicted major cost overruns for tunneling north of Los Angeles by the CHSRA, was that the reporter didn’t know what he was talking about. The point Mr. Richard made was the CHSRA isn’t hiding any secret unreported costs of tunneling or any other budget problems.

Richard refused to go into specifics on the revised time line for the project since the new Business plan still isn’t finished. He did admit some segments of the projects were moving more slowly than planned. Morales did when speaking of the project say Northern California before saying Southern California. But the point both men were making is the new Business plan is centered on speeding up construction on the entire project on all fronts. The reason for this is to save money. The faster they can build, the sooner they free up unused contingency money for a segment of the project and can transfer the saving to speeding up the next segment. So we may well see if the new Business Plan is approved with construction starting to the north and south at almost the same time. Who knows we might see HSR tracks at Palmdale before they have started construction to Burbank.

Lou Thompson is the Chair of the legally required California High Speed Rail Peer Review Group who’s job it is to advise the Legislature on the quality of management of the HSR project. Mr. Thompson has a long career in railroading with the Federal Railroad Administration and the World Bank. Mr. Thompson gave high marks for the quality of the work of the Authority. He backed up their contentions that on any big construction project the cost numbers are always changing and that it is impossible to predict that the project will exactly cost $68 billion years in the future. He also put in a plug for a budget for the Peer Review Group. The Group which can have as many as 8 members is now made up of 4 members, one who is retired and 3 with full time jobs. All members are unpaid volunteers. A budget and a small staff he implied would make it possible to better answer the many questions members of the Legislature will have.

The end of the video has the public comment segment with each person given one minute to talk. Several of the people grumbled about that, not that they had anything to say that couldn’t be said in a few sentences.