Built into the legislation that authorized the first $9 billion dollars of bonds to be issued to build California's high speed rail system and which was approved by voters back in November of 2008, was an advisory panel known as California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group, ostensibly an independent watchdog group for the project.
If supporters of the project thought this panel to be an Amen Corner for high-speed choo-choos then they found themselves to be sorely disappointed this past week.
In a scathing critique that could further jeopardize political support for California's proposed $98.5-billion bullet train, a key independent review panel is recommending that state officials postpone borrowing billions of dollars to start building the first section of track this year.
Gov. Jerry Brown has said he will ask the Legislature in the coming months to issue the first batch of $9 billion in voter-approved bonds for a high-speed rail network that backers say will create jobs, help the environment and transform the state's economy.
But in a report Tuesday, a panel of experts created by state law to help safeguard the public's interest raised serious doubts about almost every aspect of the project and concluded that the current plan "is not financially feasible." As a result, the panel said, it "cannot at this time recommend that the Legislature approve the appropriation of bond proceeds for this project."
Although the panel has no legal power to stop the project, its strong criticism, coupled with recent polls showing public opinion has shifted against the proposal, is giving some key political leaders pause.
"The peer review group report raises important issues for the Legislature to weigh as we consider any appropriation for the project during this year's budget process," said the leader of the state Senate, Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), a longtime supporter of the program.
The project has won major support from organized labor, some big-city mayors and many state lawmakers. But Tuesday's report adds to a string of negative assessments from the state auditor, the state inspector general, the legislative analyst, the UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies, as well as the transportation committee in the U.S. House of Representatives.
So what did this panel that includes private-sector financial experts, a University of California dean of engineering, a former Caltrans director and a local government representative find wrong with the project? What didn't they find wrong?
The expert panel asserted that the plan to start construction between Chowchilla and Bakersfield does not meet requirements approved by voters. Their report also found ridership estimates are unverified, construction costs may exceed the current $98.5 billion estimate, and the state agency overseeing the project lacks adequate management resources.
Left unsaid in the article was the fact that the initial funding to put down the rails in the Central Valley will cover just that, the rails. No transmission grid to get power to the trains, no lights and crossing gates and not even any actual trains.
And, oh, by the way, the project has no money...
Most problematic, the report said, is the lack of certainty about funding the balance of the project once the state exhausts the $9 billion in available bonds and $3.3 billion in federal grants. Congress has eliminated future funding for the project, and Republicans are attempting to freeze funds already granted.
The fact that the funding plan fails to identify any long-term funding commitments is a fundamental flaw in the program," the panel said. "We cannot overemphasize the fact that moving ahead on the high-speed rail project without credible sources of adequate funding … represents an immense financial risk on the part of the state of California."
About every single group in this state that has taken a sober look at the high-speed rail project has pointed out serious flaws in the project, a fact that will not deter the faith-based believers in high-speed choo-choos who believe that the money for this project which may cost as much as $120 billion dollars will appear on the backs of unicorns bounding over rainbows to be delivered to Brown's Folly office in Sacramento.
Brown's office signaled that the governor isn't likely to be swayed by the panel's findings. "It does not appear to add any arguments that are new or compelling enough to suggest a change in course," said Gil Duran, Brown's press secretary.
Because why should the fact that there is simply no money for this project distract one from having the Obama administration and Big Labor urging you to stay the course on this disaster?