Capitol Alert

The latest on California politics and government

June 12, 2014
Bera, other vulnerable Democrats vote to block high-speed rail

Thumbnail image for officeRB Ami Bera 1.JPG

Health care isn't the only issue where Rep. Ami Bera finds himself breaking with his party as he runs for for re-election in one of the most competitive congressional races in the country.

On Tuesday, the Elk Grove Democrat voted with three other California Democrats to block California's beleaguered high-speed rail project from receiving federal funds.

The amendment to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill, sponsored by high-speed rail foe Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, passed the House of Representatives on a vote of 227-186. However, it's not likely to survive in the Senate, where Democrats hold a majority.

Including Bera, four of the six Democrats who voted with Republicans were freshmen from California, underscoring the number of tight House races in the state this year.

The others were Rep. Raul Ruiz of Palm Desert, Julia Brownley of Westlake Village and Scott Peters of San Diego. The remaining two, Reps. John Barrow of Georgia and Collin Peterson of Minnesota, belong to a shrinking group of fiscally conservative Democrats known as "Blue Dogs."

"If you're facing a competitive election in California," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont-McKenna College, "opposition is probably the smart move."

The $68 billion high-speed rail project is one of the signature efforts of Gov. Jerry Brown and President Barack Obama. But like Obama's Affordable Care Act, it's also encountered near-universal opposition from Republicans. Denham, who's chairman of the House Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee, has made numerous attempts to kill the project.

Bera supported high-speed rail when he ran for Congress in 2010, losing to Republican Rep. Dan Lungren. Bera narrowly won a rematch with Lungren in 2012, but by then had turned against the project after the cost had nearly tripled.

"With the many critical infrastructure projects that need funding in California right now like our levees, our bridges and roads, and other more highly traveled train routes," Bera said in an emailed statement, "now is not the time to be spending billions in taxpayer dollars on this project."

Bera has criticized the president's health care law and has voted with Republicans on different attempts to make changes. But former Republican Rep. Doug Ose, is betting that his staunch opposition to the law will help him defeat Bera in November.

Pitney said high-speed rail isn't as potent a weapon for Republicans as health care, but it's on the radar in California this year because of the governor's race, putting even more pressure on Bera and his fellow freshmen.

"Early on, you're shoring yourself up," Pitney said. "You don't want to be a one-term wonder."

PHOTO CREDIT: Ami Bera greeted volunteers in his Carmichael field office while he campaigned for the 3rd Congressional District on Saturday, October 16, 2010. Randall Benton, Sacramento Bee.

June 12, 2014
Budget deal gives 25 percent of cap-and-trade money to high-speed rail

jerrybrownprisons.jpgGov. Jerry Brown and Democratic legislative leaders have agreed to a proposal to use 25 percent of future cap-and-trade revenue - money polluters pay to offset carbon emissions - to provide ongoing funding for construction of California's high-speed rail project, according to part of a budget deal legislators will consider Thursday, sources said.

The amount falls short of the 33 percent Brown originally sought but is more than the Senate Democrats proposed.

The use of cap-and-trade money is one of the most controversial elements remaining in a spending plan Brown and lawmakers are finalizing this week. Lawmakers are expected to finish committee work on the budget Thursday, with floor votes Sunday, the constitutional deadline.

Cap-and-trade auctions could generate as much as $1 billion in 2014-15. The deal lawmakers are considering for the $68 billion high-speed rail calls for ongoing funding beginning in the 2015-16 budget year.

In addition to high-speed rail, the deal calls for 15 percent of cap-and-trade revenue to go to other transportation projects and 20 percent to go to affordable housing projects and other programs that help reduce greenhouse gases.

The remaining 40 percent of cap-and-trade revenue would go to various transportation, natural resources, energy and other projects.

PHOTO: Gov. Jerry Brown speaks to reporters at a news conference at the Capitol on Sept. 9, 2013. The Sacramento Bee/Hector Amezcua

May 23, 2014
Three competing plans emerge for spending cap-and-trade fees

Thumbnail image for California_Greenhouse_Gases.jpg
And now there are three competing plans for spending about $1 billion in cap-and-trade fees on businesses that emit greenhouse gases, with three weeks to resolve the differences before the June 15 deadline for enacting a state budget.

The fees are, by law, supposed to be used to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to meet state goals.

Gov. Jerry Brown's 2014-15 budget would spend $870 million in fees, with the largest single piece being $250 million to bolster financial underpinnings of the state's bullet train project. Plus, Brown wants the Legislature to permanently commit a third of future cap-and-trade revenues to the project.

The Assembly's leadership, in a plan unveiled on Thursday, wants to raise cap-and-trade spending to just over $1 billion with two pots of $400 million each, one of which could go to the bullet train if the state's Strategic Growth Council – an agency of the governor's top appointees – agrees.

Moreover, the Assembly's plan would give Brown the authority to seek a $20 billion federal loan and issue a $20 billion revenue bond for the high-speed rail project, both of which would rely on future cap-and-trade fees to repay.

On Friday, the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee adopted another version that would allocate $450 million for mass transit and intercity rail, including the bullet train, plus appropriations for smaller programs.

There are some other differences as well, including how much money, if any, should be spent on subsidies for buyers of low-emission vehicles and various programs to reduce solid waste, restoring wetlands and support "sustainable communities," however they may be defined.

The differences will be resolved – if they can be – during negotiations among Brown and Democratic legislative leaders.

PHOTO: A tanker truck passes the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond on March 9, 2010. Associated Press/Paul Sakuma

May 16, 2014
VIDEO: Jerry Brown builds case for fourth term as governor

Gov. Jerry Brown stopped by The Sacramento Bee's Editorial Board on Thursday. He touched on subjects ranging from education and water to why voters should give him another four years.

February 28, 2014
VIDEO: Jerry Brown expanding plan for high-speed rail

Brownelectionsoffice.jpgOAKLAND - Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday defended his plan to use carbon-reduction funds for years ahead to prop up California's high-speed rail project, saying uncertainty about the project's long-term financing is "one of the greatest questions of the critics" and that fees paid by carbon producers are an appropriate source of funds.

"I think that cap-and-trade is very appropriate because high-speed rail reduces greenhouse gases," the Democratic governor told reporters in an elections office in Oakland, where he came to file for re-election.

Brown in January proposed using $250 million in cap-and-trade revenue - the money polluters pay to offset carbon emissions -- to help finance the $68 billion rail project, and in a budget trailer bill he proposed dedicating one-third of all greenhouse gas reduction fund revenue to the project in future years. In addition, he proposed that $400 million loaned from the cap-and-trade program to the general fund last year be used for high-speed rail when that money eventually is repaid.

The cap-and-trade proposal is one of the most controversial elements of Brown's budget plan this year. Environmentalists have said money should be used for other projects, while the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office has raised legal questions about the funding shift.

Cap-and-trade revenue is intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In a review of Brown's proposal, the LAO said the first phase of the rail project will not be operational until after 2020, and "the construction of the project would actually generate GHG emissions of 30,000 metric tons over the next several years."

Though acknowledging the California High-Speed Rail Authority's plan to offset emissions by planting thousands of trees in the Central Valley, the LAO said the administration's "emission estimates for construction do not include emissions associated with the production of construction materials, which suggests that the amount of emissions requiring mitigation could be much higher than currently planned."

The rail project, a priority of Brown's administration, has been beset by a fall-off in public approval and uncertainty about long-term financing. In addition, legal challenges have left state bond funding in doubt.

Brown said Friday that his "main focus" is on litigation and that he is "hopeful we'll get that resolved quickly."

PHOTO: Gov. Jerry Brown speaks to reporters after filing for re-election in Oakland on Feb. 28, 2014. The Sacramento Bee/David Siders

February 14, 2014
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom: Spend high-speed rail money elsewhere


Now leaving the station: Gavin Newsom's support for high-speed rail.

The Democratic lieutenant governor doesn't typically align with Republicans. But during an appearance on a conservative radio program, Newsom embraced a position that Republicans have championed in Sacramento: Reallocating voter-approved high-speed rail bond money toward other projects.

"I would take the dollars and redirect it to other, more pressing infrastructure needs," Newsom said during an appearance on the Seattle-based Ben Shapiro Show on AM 770 KTTH.

That puts Newsom at odds with Gov. Jerry Brown, who has substantially lashed his legacy to the embattled project. The Brown administration recently asked the California Supreme Court to intervene in a legal dispute over the train's funding plan, and a lower court is poised to reconsider the issue.

But Newsom reflected public skepticism about the high-speed rail. A 2011 Field Poll found nearly two-thirds of voters advocated another vote on a $9 billion bond issue for the project, with a clear majority saying they would vote down the funding measure voters had passed in 2008.

"I am not the only Democrat that feels this way," Newsom said during his radio appearance. "I gotta tell you, I am one of the few that just said it publicly. Most are now saying it privately."

Over the last few years, Newsom's public position on the state-spanning bullet train has gradually shifted. In 2011, he pronounced himself "extraordinarily excited" about the undertaking.

"I personally have been supportive of the high-speed rail project since my time as mayor of the city and county of San Francisco," Newsom said, going on to tout the project's job-generating capacity and its role in moving goods and people around the state.

By 2013 he appeared distinctly less enthusiastic. During a talk at the Milken Institute Global Conference last May, Newsom said that "more and more legitimate questions are being raised" about the rail project.

"I think we have to be sober about this," he added.

PHOTO: Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks before Gov. Jerry Brown delivers the 2014 State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014 at the State Capitol. The Sacramento Bee/Hector Amezcua.

January 29, 2014
California Supreme Court moves high-speed rail request to lower court

HSRail.jpgThe California Supreme Court, which had been asked by Gov. Jerry Brown's administration to intervene in litigation challenging California's high-speed rail project, referred the case to a lower court Wednesday and ordered its expedited review.

The court transferred the case to the 3rd District Court of Appeal and ordered both sides to submit filings by Feb. 10.

The action comes after a Sacramento Superior Court judge in November ordered the California High-Speed Rail Authority to rescind its original funding plan for the $68 billion project. The court found the plan failed to comply with provisions of Proposition 1A, the initiative in which voters approved the project in 2008.

The Brown administration said in an appeal to the Supreme Court on Friday that lower court rulings "imperil" the project, threatening state and federal funding.

The troubled project is proposed to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco. The project has been delayed, with state officials now hoping to begin construction in the Central Valley this year.

PHOTO: A view of a high speed train moving through a wind farm in the proposed high speed rail network. Rendering by Newlands and Company Inc.

January 24, 2014
Brown asks Supreme Court to intervene on high-speed rail

HSRail.jpgThe Brown administration, which previously downplayed the significance of court rulings against California's $68 billion high-speed rail project, asked the California Supreme Court to intervene on Friday, saying the rulings "imperil" the project, threatening state and federal funding.

The request to the California Supreme Court comes after a Sacramento Superior Court judge in November ordered the state to rescind its original funding plan for the project. The lower court ruled the California High-Speed Rail Authority failed to comply with provisions of Proposition 1A, the initiative in which voters approved initial funding for the project in 2008.

The administration said in a request for expedited review that "the trial court's approach to these issues cripples government's ability to function" and could have implications for other infrastructure projects.

The state argues the normal appeals process could take years to resolve and is "not a real choice."

"Since the project's inception, opponents of high-speed rail have tried to block its construction," the filing said. "Now, two rulings of the Sacramento Superior Court - which are otherwise unreviewable as a practical matter - imperil the project by erecting obstacles found nowhere in the voter-approved bond act."

PHOTO: A view of a high speed train moving through a wind farm in the proposed high speed rail network. Rendering by Newlands and Company Inc.

January 6, 2014
Jerry Brown's cap-and-trade proposal for high-speed rail said to be $250 million

High Speed Rail Station (1).JPGGov. Jerry Brown's proposal to use fees paid by carbon producers to help finance the state's high-speed rail project is expected to amount to $250 million next budget year, a sum that could provide a significant lift to the project but frustrate environmentalists already upset about the diversion of fees.

Brown is expected to include the proposal in the annual budget plan he will release Friday, sources told The Sacramento Bee. The amount is included in about $750 million in total cap-and-trade funds the governor is expected to propose allocating among transportation, green energy and other programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, Brown is expected to propose paying back part of a $500 million loan from the cap-and-trade program to the state general fund included in this year's budget. The amount of the repayment is expected to be $100 million.

Many environmentalists criticized the loan last year and have bristled at the idea of using cap-and-trade money for high-speed rail, saying other projects could have a more immediate impact on greenhouse gas reduction.

Brown's office has declined to discuss the budget ahead of its release.

PHOTO: A view of the interior of a station in the proposed high speed rail network. Rendering by Newlands and Company Inc., 2008.

January 5, 2014
Jerry Brown eyes cap-and-trade money for high-speed rail

Brown_signing_bills.JPGGov. Jerry Brown plans to propose spending millions of dollars in fees paid by carbon producers to aid the state's controversial high-speed rail project.

The proposal - and the prospect of additional funding from the state's cap-and-trade program in future years - could provide a significant lift to a $68 billion rail project beleaguered by uncertainty about long-term financing.

Brown plans to propose allocating several hundred million dollars this year, sources told The Sacramento Bee.

Though the state has acquired $3.4 billion in federal funding to start construction of the rail project in the Central Valley, legal challenges have left state bond funding in question.

Brown is expected to include the proposal in the annual budget plan he will release Friday. Brown has made high-speed rail a priority of his administration, and he suggested two years ago that cap-and-trade revenue, which is designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, would be a future source of funding for the project.

But the use of cap-and-trade money for high-speed rail could be problematic. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office said in 2012 that while the rail project could eventually help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, benefits would not be seen until after 2020, the year by which California is seeking to meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Moreover, the Democratic governor and lawmakers infuriated environmentalists last year by approving a $500 million loan from the cap-and-trade program to the state general fund.

Brown said at the time that the state was not "quite ready yet" to start allocating money. The administration said state agencies needed more time to develop greenhouse gas-reduction programs and that the loan would be repaid with interest when those programs needed the money.

Brown's budget plans also include using general fund money to pay back part, but not all, of the loan, a source said.

The rail project, which is proposed to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco through the Central Valley, has been beset by legal challenges and opposition from Congressional Republicans. A Sacramento Superior Court judge in November ordered the California High-Speed Rail Authority to rescind its original funding plan, saying officials failed to comply with provisions of Proposition 1A, the initiative in which voters approved initial funding for the project in 2008.

Rail officials have been acquiring property in the Central Valley for the project. Construction, which was once expected to start last summer, is now expected to begin this year.

Brown's office declined to discuss the budget proposal ahead of its release.

Brown is also expected in his budget plan to support a proposal by Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez to put a rainy-day fund constitutional amendment on the November ballot. The measure would restrict spending in good years and offset cuts in bad years, with a goal of building billions of dollars in reserve.

In advance of his budget release, Brown has urged the Legislature to bolster reserves, cautioning that the budget's reliance on capital gains leaves it vulnerable to large revenue peaks and valleys.

"The question is, 'When do we get the next valley?'" he said at the Milken Institute California Summit in November. "And the only way to avoid that is to put it in a rainy day fund, to say no when necessary, along with saying yes when that's appropriate."

Brown may face resistance to the creation of a rainy-day fund by labor unions and other allies of the governor and Democratic-controlled Legislature. Liberal groups already are calling for increased spending after years of budget cuts in the recession.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office projected last fall that the state could post a $5.6 billion surplus by June 2015, with annual surpluses reaching $8.3 billion by the 2016-17 budget year.

PHOTO: Gov. Jerry Brown signs bills in Sacramento on March 24, 2011 as Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco look on. The Sacramento Bee/Hector Amezcua

November 8, 2013
California again scores low in nationwide academic tests


California again scored very low in the latest round of nationwide biennial testing of elementary students' reading and mathematics skills.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress tests were administered earlier this year to fourth and eighth graders and fewer than a third of California's students were rated as proficient in the two skills. Overall, the state ranked in the bottom 10 among the 50 states and the District of Columbia; its worst score was 47th in four grade reading, and its best was 42nd in eighth grade reading.

The brightest spot in the NAEP report on California is that it was one of only 13 states that saw gains in eighth grade reading scores.

While State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said the scores showed "that we are moving in the right direction," the continued low - and largely flat - performance of California students was another black eye for the state's largest-in-the-nation education system.

As with past state and federal tests, the newest NAEP results for California also showed a wide gap between the achievements of white and Asian youngsters and black and Latino students - a gap that Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature are addressing with a new way of distributing state aid.

Under the new system, school districts with high numbers of poor and/or English-learner students will receive extra money. The state is also at work implementing the Common Core curriculum, a multistate effort to raise academic achievement.

PHOTO: A second-grader reads her assignment in her English language learning class at Cordova Villa Elementary School on Monday, June 10, 2013 in Rancho Cordova, Calif. The Sacramento Bee/Randy Pench.

August 21, 2013
Panel denies bid to audit land acquisitions for high-speed rail

railland.jpgThe Joint Legislative Audit Committee declined a request by two Republican lawmakers today to audit how the state is acquiring private land for California's high-speed rail project.

Assemblymen Jim Patterson, of Fresno, and Frank Bigelow, of O'Neals, said they feared Central Valley landowners were being treated unfairly as the California High-Speed Rail Authority moves to acquire land for the project.

Their request failed on a party-line vote. Democratic lawmakers said an audit is unnecessary because information about land acquisition can be obtained directly from the rail authority.

State Auditor Elaine Howle said an audit would have taken about six months. The state auditor has examined elements of the high-speed rail project twice before, first in 2010 and again in 2012.

Rail officials plan to begin construction of the $68 billion system in the Central Valley this year. The project has been a source of controversy at the Capitol for years, and opponents are seeking to block its construction in court.

PHOTO: Fresno Inn residents, given a 3-day eviction notice, say they are being told by the landlord that the property will be demolished to make way for high-speed rail, on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. The Fresno Bee/John Walker

August 19, 2013
Jerry Brown says high-speed rail ruling won't stop project

brownsandoval.jpgINCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. - Gov. Jerry Brown said Monday that California's high-speed rail project will not be stopped by a judge's ruling that project officials failed to comply with provisions of Proposition 1A, the initiative in which voters approved initial funding for the project in 2008.

"It's not a setback," Brown told reporters at the Lake Tahoe Summit.

He said the ruling "didn't stop our spending, so we're continuing. As we speak we're spending money, we're moving ahead."

In a decision Friday, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny said the California High-Speed Rail Authority abused its discretion when it approved a funding plan in 2011 that failed to identify adequate sources of funding for the rail project.

Kenny did not halt construction of the project, and the effect of the ruling is unclear. The decision concerned a 2011 funding plan - which was revised by the rail authority last year - and the judge asked for more information from both proponents and opponents of the project before taking up the matter again.

Brown said the ruling "didn't stop anything ... It raises some questions, and I think they'll be answered within that judge's framework."

June 6, 2013
High-speed rail board authorizes first contract for construction

High_Speed_Rail.jpgBy Tim Sheehan

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has agreed to negotiate and sign a $985 million contract for the first stage of construction for a statewide bullet-train system in the Fresno-Madera area.

By a 6-0 vote Thursday, the agency's board authorized CEO Jeffrey Morales to finalize a deal with a consortium comprised of Tutor Perini Corp. of Sylmar, Zachry Construction of Texas and Parsons Corp. of Pasadena. The Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons team was the lowest of five bidders for the contract to design and build the 30-mile segment from northeast of Madera to the south end of Fresno.

Thomas Fellenz, the rail authority's chief counsel, said he believes it will take about a month before the contract is signed as the agency and representatives of the construction consortium hammer out the details of the agreement.

March 20, 2013
PPIC poll shows division over high-speed rail, water bond

brownrail.jpgCalifornians remain sharply divided about California's $68 billion high-speed rail project, even as officials prepare to start construction in the Central Valley this year, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll released tonight.

Forty-eight percent of adults favor the project, while 50 percent oppose it, according to the poll. Opposition is even greater among likely voters, 54 percent to 43 percent.

In addition to division over high-speed rail, a majority of likely voters -- 51 percent -- oppose an $11.1 billion water bond scheduled for the November 2014 ballot. The bond, tied politically to Gov. Jerry Brown's effort to build two water-diverting tunnels through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, includes funding for dams, wastewater treatment and other water infrastructure projects.

March 18, 2013
California bullet train board OKs sale of $8.6 billion in bonds

High Speed Rail.JPGThe California High-Speed Rail Authority, brushing aside questions about their legality, Monday approved two major steps toward construction of a north-south bullet train system.

By unanimous votes, the five-member governing board approved a "memorandum of understanding" to "blend" the bullet train with local commuter rail service on the San Francisco Peninsula and ask state officials to sell up to $8.6 billion in voter-approved bonds to begin construction on an inititial segment in the San Joaquin Valley.

The CHSRA hopes to break ground later this year on the 130-mile segment from near Merced to north of Bakersfield, using about $3 billion in state bond money and another $3 billion from the federal government. The state bonds will actually be sold only as needed for construction, officials said.

October 1, 2012
CA high-speed rail funding gets little love at candidate forum

California's bullet train won little support from congressional hopefuls from the Sacramento region Sunday, with just one of five congressional candidates participating in an election forum vowing to vote for federal funding for the project.

Third Congressional District candidate Kim Vann , Rep. Dan Lungren, and 9th Congressional District candidate Ricky Gill, all Republicans, and Democrat Ami Bera, who is challenging Lungren in the 7th Congressional District, all came down against funding construction of the high-speed rail line, citing the high cost of the project.

"We have failing infrastructure all over the state," said Vann, a Colusa County supervisor. "Until we address the failing infrastructure that we have, we shouldn't be planning for something that we cannot afford today."  

August 20, 2012
Jarvis group's new ad calls Jerry Brown's tax bid street robbery

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is up with its second radio advertisement against Gov. Jerry Brown's November ballot initiative to raise taxes, comparing Brown's tax campaign to street robbery.

"Hey, lady, hand over your purse or the schools get it," a voice at the top of the ad says.

The ad, an issue-advocacy spot running statewide beginning today, comes as the Democratic governor begins in earnest to campaign for Proposition 30, his proposal to raise the state sales tax and income taxes on California's highest earners. The Democratic governor has characterized the election as a choice between higher taxes and $5.4 billion in cuts to schools and community colleges.

The taxpayers group declined to say how much money is behind the ad, which is replacing a previous one that hammered "Sacramento politicians" for their approval of California's $68 billion high-speed rail project.

The current ad, in addition to criticizing the rail project, lambastes pay raises given to more than 900 legislative employees this year and the disclosure of nearly $54 million in hidden parks money.

"Sacramento politicians are threatening cuts to education and public safety unless you pay more taxes," Jon Coupal, president of the taxpayers group, says in the ad. "These same politicians just gave hundreds of staffers pay raises. They approved the bullet train against the wishes of most Californians, and now, after Jerry Brown announced the closure of 70 state parks, we find out that the state parks department has been hiding $54 million. What else are they keeping from us? It's time to stop the deception politicians are using to force tax increases on the working people of California."

Brown said last week that his tax measure is "not about any other issue," and he is trying in a series of appearances at schools to refocus public attention on education.

July 30, 2012
High-speed rail honcho gets White House honors

The White House on Tuesday will lavish a little love on California's politically controversial high-speed rail project, with the recognition of California High-Speed Rail Authority Chairman Dan Richard.

The White House is naming Richard as a "Transportation Innovator Champion of Change." Each week, Obama administration officials are designating champions in fields ranging from education to business.

The White House event can be watched live starting at 11 a.m. EST/8 a.m. PST via the website.

July 30, 2012
Jarvis group highlights high-speed rail in anti-tax ad

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has released a radio advertisement aimed at undermining Gov. Jerry Brown's November ballot initiative to raise taxes, attacking "Sacramento politicians" for their approval of California's $68 billion high-speed rail project.

"Sacramento politicians have turned their backs on education and public safety and voted to waste billions on the largest boondoggle in American history," Jon Coupal, president of the association, says in the minute-long ad. "These same politicians are using scare tactics to force tax increases on the working people of California. While they push for more taxes, frivolous spending and political cronyism, they ignore desperately needed reforms to education, pensions and spending."

The taxpayers group described the spot as an issue-advocacy ad against high-speed rail. It said the ad is running statewide, but it declined to say how much money is behind it.

Public support for the rail project has waned since voters approved it in 2008, and a Field Poll this month suggested it could be a liability for Brown's tax measure. The Democratic governor is proposing to raise the state sales tax and income taxes on California's highest earners.

July 26, 2012
California high-speed rail critics halt campaign to block funding

High Speed Rail Station (1).JPGCritics of California's high-speed rail project have put the brakes on an effort to ask voters to freeze funding for the planned bullet train.

Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, and former Republican Rep. George Radanovich announced this week that they are suspending their campaign to qualify a measure on the matter for the 2014 ballot.

Initiative backers have decided to focus for now on derailing the project through litigation but have not ruled out the possibility of pursuing another initiative, according to a statement released by the campaign Wednesday.

"We're still committed to it in the future, but I think it's just easier to let the legal matters roll by first and get those resolved, and we can reassess the depth of support and the necessity for the repeal," LaMalfa said Thursday in an interview.

The measure would block the California High-Speed Rail Authority from issuing voter-approved bonds to pay for the project and cancel any existing contracts. Proponents have until mid-August to collect the 504,760 valid voter signatures needed to secure a spot on the ballot.

The campaign has raised at least $135,000, according to campaign finance reports filed on the Secretary of State website. The cost of hiring paid petition circulators to collect signatures typically exceeds $1 million.

"It takes a lot more than that to be successful statewide,
LaMalfa said of the money raised so far, "So I want to conserve the resources we have and conserve and respect the volunteers we have out there."

State lawmakers have already authorized spending $5.8 billion, including $2.6 billion in state rail bond funds, to begin construction of the line in the Central Valley.

Editor's note: This post was updated with quotes from LaMalfa.

PHOTO CREDIT: A view of the interior of a station in the proposed high speed rail network. Rendering by Newlands and Company Inc., 2008.

July 18, 2012
VIDEO: 'Don't worry about the Field Poll,' Jerry Brown says

SAN FRANCISCO -- It wasn't the first time Gov. Jerry Brown has addressed the potentially harmful impact of high-speed rail on his November ballot initiative to raise taxes, but it was perhaps his most direct response yet.

"First of all, I don't really believe in the Field Poll," Brown said when asked this afternoon about a poll that showed many voters could lose their appetite for higher taxes if the state approved high-speed rail funds. "And I'll tell you one reason I don't: High-speed rail is more popular than I am right now. So if I believe that, I might pack my bags and head back to the monastery."

The nonpartisan Field Poll found recently that a fifth of likely voters who support Brown's proposal to raise taxes say they would be less likely to support it if the Legislature appropriated money for California's $68 billion high-speed rail project.

The Legislature did just that, and Brown signed legislation today authorizing initial construction.

"A poll here and a poll there," he said. "I got 10 polls in my back pocket that tell me everything I want to know and don't want to know, so don't worry about the Field Poll."

Brown described controversy about the rail project as one between "doers" and "fearful men."

"We are in a culture of immediate gratification -- me, now, easy," he said. "This is about us, long and difficult."

July 18, 2012
Jerry Brown signs California high-speed rail bill

Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation this morning authorizing initial construction of California's $68 billion high-speed rail line.

The signature comes less than two weeks after Brown and the California High-Speed Rail Authority pushed the project through the Legislature by a bare majority, a major victory for the Democratic governor.

The bill authorizes $5.8 billion to start construction of a high-speed rail line in the Central Valley, including $2.6 billion in state rail bond funds and $3.2 billion in federal aid. To gain political support for the project in the state's most densely populated areas, the administration also included $1.9 billion in state rail bond proceeds to improve urban rail systems and connect them to high-speed rail.

"This legislation will help put thousands of people in California back to work," Brown said in a prepared statement. "By improving regional transportation systems, we are investing in the future of our state and making California a better place to live and work."

Brown signed the rail bill at an event at Los Angeles' Union Station, his office said. He is scheduled to fly this afternoon to San Francisco, where he will hold a similar event at the construction site of the city's new Transbay Transit Center.

The appearances will keep Brown conspicuously away from the Central Valley, where opposition to the project remains fierce. Farmers and other groups there are suing to block the project.

July 6, 2012
California Senate approves funding for high-speed rail

The state Senate voted by a bare majority today to fund initial construction of California's $68 billion high-speed rail project.

The approval was uncertain as recently as hours before the vote. With all 15 Republican senators opposed to the measure and several Democratic lawmakers wavering, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg scrambled to muster at least 21 of 25 Democratic votes.

Twenty-one Democratic senators voted 'Yes.'

The approval was a major legislative victory for Gov. Jerry Brown. Steinberg said the Democratic governor "talked to a couple members" ahead of the vote, while Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, reminded colleagues that the project not only had Brown's attention, but also that of President Barack Obama and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

The bill approved by the Senate authorizes $5.8 billion to start construction in the Central Valley, including $2.6 billion in rail bond funds and $3.2 billion from the federal government. Lawmakers tied that funding to nearly $2 billion to improve regional rail systems and connect them to high-speed rail. That regional money was considered necessary to lobby hesitant senators about the project's potential significance to their districts.

"Members, this is a big vote," Steinberg said as he opened floor debate on the bill this afternoon. "In the era of term limits, how many chances do we have to vote for something this important and long-lasting?"

Steinberg and other Democrats said the project would create thousands of jobs and make necessary improvements to the state's transportation infrastructure. Republicans said it is too expensive and relies on uncertain future funding. They criticized starting construction in the sparsely populated Central Valley.

Among Republicans in opposition was Sen. Tony Strickland, who criticized a willingness by the Legislature to reduce spending elsewhere while finding money for high-speed rail.

"I think this is a colossal fiscal train wreck for California," he said.

Sen. Joe Simitian, of Palo Alto, was one of four Democrats to break ranks with his colleagues. Simitian said he supports the vision of high-speed rail, but not the current plan. He said there are "billions of reasons" to oppose it.

Other Democratic senators opposing the measure were Mark DeSaulnier, of Concord, Alan Lowenthal, of Long Beach, and Fran Pavley, of Agoura Hills.

July 5, 2012
Assembly votes to approve funds for California high-speed rail

The state Assembly voted this afternoon to approve initial funding for California's $68 billion high-speed rail project, setting up a crucial vote in the Senate on Friday.

The bill passed by the Assembly includes $5.8 billion for construction in the Central Valley, as well as nearly $2 billion to improve regional rail systems in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas and to connect them to high-speed rail.

The Assembly's approval, on a 51-27 vote, was widely expected. A much closer vote is expected in the Senate. It remains unclear if the project has enough votes in the upper house to proceed. Senators were debating the bill in committee this afternoon.

Assemblyman Charles Calderon, D-Whittier, urged lawmakers to recall the work of previous generations of Californians, who built the state water project and its highway and university systems.

"We have issues, in terms of budget problems," he said. "Does that mean that we stop looking to the future?"

Republicans argued the state does not have money to invest in rail.

Citing recent polling showing high-speed rail has become unpopular since voters approved it in 2008, Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills, urged the Assembly to put the project back to a public vote.

"Let them help us prioritize what's important," Hagman said.

July 5, 2012
High-speed rail boss says CA project will stop if lawmakers vote 'No'

Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority board, said this afternoon that if the Legislature does not approve funding for the project today and Friday, it is essentially dead.

"If the Legislature doesn't move forward with the project this week, then the secretary of transportation has made it very clear that they need to look at withdrawing the money from California and putting it some place else," Richard told reporters ahead of a likely floor vote in the Assembly this afternoon. "Without that federal match, we're not going to be able to go forward. So, effectively, yes, this is the time when California decides, 'Do we want to move forward with this rail modernization or don't we?'"

The Assembly is expected to approve funding for the project, but support in the Senate, which is expected to vote tomorrow, is uncertain. Richard declined to say if he believes the rail authority has the necessary Senate votes.

"I don't make those predictions," he said. "I'm not a member of the Legislature, and the thing that I've found is that people who make those predictions are either presumptuous or stupid. So I'm going to decline to be either."

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood urged lawmakers in May to vote on the rail project before the Legislature's summer recess. The controversial project now polls poorly among California voters, and some Democratic senators have criticized the project's oversight and cost.

The Legislature is expected to vote on a bill that ties $5.8 billion in funding for construction in the Central Valley to nearly $2 billion in funds to improve regional rail systems and connect them to high-speed rail. Rail advocates have used the promise of regional investment to lobby senators in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas.

"I think the one thing that is most important to emphasize is that while over the last couple of years people have really talked about this as the high-speed rail program, the fact of the matter is that what our new business plan is all about is an integrated rail modernization program for the state," Richard said. "It's not just high speed rail."

He said, "We have really put the best plan forward that we could put forward."

July 4, 2012
High-speed rail bill includes regional money, oversight language

Lawmakers preparing for a crucial vote this week on high-speed rail will see a bill tailored to include funding for regional transportation improvements in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas, as well as language designed to address longstanding concerns about the California High-Speed Rail Authority's oversight of the project.

Lawmakers expect to consider the $68 billion project in committee on Thursday, before a floor vote in the Senate on Friday.

Draft bill language for initial funding of the project ties $5.8 billion for construction in the Central Valley - including $2.6 billion in rail bond funds and $3.2 billion from the federal government - to nearly $2 billion in funds to improve regional rail systems and connect them to high-speed rail.

The controversial project is a priority for Gov. Jerry Brown, and supporters have scrambled in recent days to lobby hesitant Democrats in the Legislature.

Even among supporters, the authority has been criticized in recent years for its changing cost estimates and public relations blunders.

Draft bill language would require the authority to outline financial risks of the project and produce a management plan "to ensure adequate oversight and management of contractors." The bill would also require the authority to fill the positions of chief executive officer, risk manager, chief program manager and chief financial officer before awarding construction contracts.

The authority would be required within a year to provide an analysis of the project's impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

July 3, 2012
How Senate districts would benefit from CA high-speed rail

As lawmakers prepare for a contentious vote later this week over billions of dollars in funding for high speed rail, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg's office distributed a chart that shows the potential benefit of the project to each member of the upper house.


June 22, 2012
Jerry Brown suggests high-speed rail CEQA proposal only delayed

FREMONT - Gov. Jerry Brown said this afternoon that he is not abandoning a proposal to insulate California's high-speed rail project from environmental lawsuits, suggesting he was only delaying the legislation until sometime after the Legislature considers funding for the project.

The Brown administration told environmentalists on Wednesday it was backing off a proposal to limit the circumstances in which a court could block construction of the project under the California Environmental Quality Act. Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, said at the time that the administration suggested it could revisit the proposal later.

The Democratic governor is seeking legislative approval, likely next week, to start construction of the $68 billion project.

Asked about his proposal to protect the project from environmental lawsuits, Brown said, "I haven't abandoned that at this point ... I think it's a question of when we push and when we don't."

Brown, in Fremont for an event at car maker Tesla Motors, said his goal is to "do the right thing, but do it in a very efficient manner." He said, "We're going to do whatever it takes."

Brown's remarks were his first since announcing a budget deal with legislative Democrats on Thursday. He said staffers are still laboring on the deal's finer points.

"I spent a few hours on the telephone coming down," Brown said. "The nits and nats and details are being turned over as we speak, so staff is working in Sacramento, executive and legislative branch, so they're still struggling."

He said of the deal's prospects ahead of a vote in the Legislature next week, "I'm very optimistic."

June 20, 2012
Jerry Brown abandons bid to protect high-speed rail from CEQA

The Brown administration is abandoning legislation it proposed to insulate California's high-speed rail project from environmental lawsuits, the administration told environmentalists today.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who is seeking legislative approval this summer to start construction on the $68 billion project, angered environmentalists when his administration proposed this month to limit the circumstances in which a court could block construction of the project under the landmark California Environmental Quality Act.

Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, said a Brown adviser sent environmentalists and transportation advocates an e-mail today indicating the Democratic governor was backing off.

Phillips said the administration suggested it could revisit the proposal later.

"They're not interested for now," Phillips said. "So I feel like I can sleep well tonight, and there will be another day when we will have to struggle with how we can ensure that we protect environmental quality."

Brown's office declined to comment. The California High-Speed Rail Authority did not immediately return calls for comment.

June 1, 2012
Jerry Brown to propose limiting environmental challenges to high-speed rail

The Brown administration is preparing a proposal to limit environmental challenges to California's high-speed rail project, heightening legal standards under which a court could block construction.

The proposal could shield the $68 billion project from court-ordered injunctions that might otherwise be issued under the California Environmental Quality Act. Except in the most serious environmental cases, the proposed legislation would let construction proceed while the California High-Speed Rail Authority fixes any environmental flaws identified by a judge.

The proposal is likely to be considered by the Legislature this month or next. Environmentalists expected to be briefed by administration officials on the plan next week.

Dan Richard, chairman of the rail authority board, said the proposal consists of "pretty small, pretty technical" changes. It would allow a judge to block construction in major cases - if opponents showed, for example, that an endangered species was threatened with extinction, he said.

The proposal is almost certain to be opposed by environmentalists.

"I don't imagine that we're going to see something next week that will make us want to embrace these exemptions that they're going to be proposing," said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California.

Phillips said the rail authority's concern about environmental challenges slowing the project is misplaced.

"Environmental review is not going to slow this project," she said. "What's going to slow this project is ineptitude by the high-speed rail authority, and that's what we have seen, at least in the last four years."

May 29, 2012
High-speed rail board picks former Caltrans chief to lead agency

JeffMorales.jpgThe California High-Speed Rail Authority voted this morning to hire as executive director a former Caltrans chief who now works for Parsons Brinkerhoff, a major contractor on the rail project.

Pending contract negotiations, Jeff Morales will replace Roelof van Ark, who resigned from the troubled agency earlier this year. The rail authority is seeking legislative approval in coming weeks to start construction of the $68 billion project.

The board is expected to finalize a contract with Morales after negotiating with him on its terms.

Morales was appointed director of Caltrans by Gov. Gray Davis and resigned in 2004. Parsons Brinkerhoff has a $199 million, seven-year contract to manage the rail project for the state authority.

In a brief meeting this morning at which the decision was announced, Dan Richard, chairman of the rail board, said Morales is the "right person to move us to the next level."

PHOTO CREDIT: Jeff Morales, 2002. Sacramento Bee / Randy Pench

May 15, 2012
California high-speed rail project given conditional blessing

The latest plan for building a California bullet train system got a very conditional blessing Tuesday from a "peer review committee" of transportation experts.

Will Kempton, the veteran transportation official who heads the committee, told a Senate hearing that the latest revision is "measurably improved" from previous versions.

"It's more reasonable and realistic than previous proposals," said Kempton, who runs the Orange County Transportation Authority.

Senators are weighing whether to give the California High-Speed Rail Authority permission to begin construction on a $6 billion initial segment in the San Joaquin Valley.

Kempton stopped short of recommending approval, but he did say that before money is committed, the Legislature should make sure that there's a competent management structure in place, that the risks are fully weighed, especially whether more money will be forthcoming from the federal government, and that the authority update ridership and operating cost projections.

The rail authority and Gov. Jerry Brown have floated the idea that if the feds don't appropriate more high-speed rail money, the state could complete the $68 billion project with proceeds of the new "cap-and-trade" fees on carbon emissions. The legality of using those funds has been questioned.

May 10, 2012
VIDEO: Obama administration tells California it's time to vote on high-speed rail

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned the California Legislature today that the Obama administration will not wait until fall for a vote on high-speed rail, urging its approval in a budget vote next month.

"We need to make sure that the commitment is there to obligate the money," LaHood told reporters at the Capitol, where he was meeting with lawmakers and with Gov. Jerry Brown.

The state's commitment, LaHood said, will be demonstrated when lawmakers "put it in the budget and take a vote on it."

Brown and the California High-Speed Rail Authority want to start construction on a $68 billion rail project by early next year, proposing initially to use $2.6 billion in state rail bond funds and $3.3 billion in federal funds. Lawmakers considering allocating that money remain skeptical, however, and the Legislative Analyst's Office has recommended against it.

LaHood said he was at the Capitol to reiterate the Obama administration's commitment to high-speed rail, while "checking signals" in the Legislature.

He said the suggestion by some lawmakers that they may need more time to consider the proposal - perhaps pushing an up or down vote into the fall - is unacceptable.

"We want to make sure that our partners here understand what's at stake," he said. "We can't wait until the end of summer."

LaHood declined to say what the administration will do if the Legislature does delay, saying, "I'm going to operate on the assumption that people are going to act in good faith."

LaHood praised the Brown administration for a project redesign this year that dramatically reduced its price, from $98 billion.

"My message to the Assembly, to the leadership, is that we need to make sure that there's a continued, strong commitment on the part of the Assembly, as reflected in their budget," he said.

The nonpartisan LAO has criticized the project for its reliance in future years on uncertain federal funding. State Sen. Joe Simitian, the Palo Alto Democrat who chairs the budget subcommittee considering high-speed rail, has said the administration's recent changes to the project would likely require more time to consider beyond when the state budget is adopted next month.

April 30, 2012
California bullet train plan gets positive response

Will Kempton, who chairs a "peer review" committee that has been sharply critical of the state's highly controversial bullet train project, sounded a more positive note Monday during testimony to the Assembly Transportation Committee.

Kempton, a veteran transportation executive who is chief executive of the Orange County Transportation Authority, told the committee that the California High-Speed Rail Authority's recently revised business plan answers some of his committee's criticism, but still leaves the project's long-term finances in doubt. The committee is still working on a formal response to the new business plan.

The new plan still proposes to build an initial segment in the San Joaquin Valley but, in response to criticisms from the peer review committee and others, also proposes to link that section to Los Angeles soon thereafter.

Gov. Jerry Brown and the CHSRA are asking the Legislature to appropriate money from a state bond issue that would be combined with federal funds to build the San Joaquin Valley segment, but there's still no firm financing for the extension to Southern California.

Kempton cited financing and the lack of a competent project management team as "risk levels" that the Legislature must consider before deciding to appropriate construction funds.

Dan Richard, the CHSRA chairman, told the committee that the management team is being recruited now and reiterated that he and Brown see proceeds of auctioning carbon emission credits under the state's new anti-global warming law as the backup source of financing if more federal money is not available.

But the Legislature's budget analyst and other authorities have questioned whether "cap-and-trade" funds could be legally used for the bullet train.

April 18, 2012
California high-speed rail chief: Projects often lack sure funding

After the state's fiscal analyst criticized California high-speed rail for facing "highly speculative" financial prospects, California High-Speed Rail Authority Chairman Dan Richard defended the $68 billion program this morning by suggesting major transportation projects often lack funding certainty.

Richard urged Assembly members to approve $2.6 billion in state bond funds along with $3.3 billion in federal money to start construction in the Central Valley by the end of the year. He testified in the first of a double-header of legislative budget hearings slated for today.

The project chief, who once served as a Bay Area Rapid Transit board member, said BART and other transportation programs commonly pursued construction without knowing where every dollar would come from.

April 17, 2012
Legislative Analyst: High-speed rail funding 'speculative'

High Speed Rail.JPGDespite lowering the proposed cost of California's high-speed rail project to $68 billion, the Brown administration still relies on "highly speculative" funding for the project, the Legislative Analyst's Office said in a report today recommending that construction funding not be approved.

The nonpartisan LAO did recommend that the Legislature approve minimal funding to continue planning for the project.

Gov. Jerry Brown and the California High-Speed Rail Authority propose to use $2.6 billion in high-speed rail bond funds and $3.3 billion in federal funds to start construction in the Central Valley by early next year.

The LAO and other critics of the project have long questioned the authority's reliance on uncertain federal funding to complete the project, an objection raised by the LAO again today.

"Given the federal government's current financial situation and the current focus in Washington on reducing federal spending, it is uncertain if any further funding for the high-speed rail program will become available," the report said, which may be viewed online at this link.

The LAO also questioned whether the state could use revenue from its new cap-and-trade program for the rail project. Cap-and-trade money is designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While the high-speed rail project could eventually help the state reduce emissions, the LAO said, it would not come online until after 2020, the year by which the state is trying to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals.

The LAO said the administration's shifting focus to rely on existing rail lines in urban areas could be positive. However, it said it is concerned changes to the plan "have been rushed with many important details not having been sorted out."

The LAO said the California High-Speed Rail Authority "has not made a strong enough case for going forward with the project at this time."

PHOTO CREDIT: A rendering of a high-speed train moving through a wind farm in the proposed high speed rail network. Courtesy of California High-Speed Rail Authority.

March 31, 2012
Lawmakers skeptical about Jerry Brown's high-speed rail revision

California lawmakers expressed skepticism Saturday about the timing and magnitude of Gov. Jerry Brown's high-speed rail revision, saying it may take longer than the governor wants to sort through the numbers.

The administration will announce Monday settling on $68.4 billion, according to sources familiar with the plan, proposing major design changes in and around Los Angeles and the Bay Area in an eleventh-hour bid to improve the project's chances of approval by the Legislature.

But some legislators noted today that just last year the Brown administration itself raised the proposed cost to $98 billion.

February 8, 2012
High-speed rail touted in jobs coalition's new radio campaign

High Speed Rail Station.JPGA coalition representing Northern and Central California contractors and union construction workers launched a radio campaign this week applauding the state's proposed high-speed rail system.

The group's 60-second spots, narrated by comedian Will Durst, are running at least twice daily -- during morning and evening commutes -- on six Sacramento and nine Bay Area radio stations.

The spot by the California Alliance for Jobs can be heard here.

The group's push to rally public opinion comes at a time when the planned high-speed rail system is coming under increasing criticism, sparking efforts to kill it in the wake of a state auditor's report that questions its financing and ridership projections.

February 3, 2012
House panel smacks California high-speed rail

A key House panel late Thursday gave the back of its hand to California's embattled high-speed rail program.

In another sign of high-speed rail's political travails, the House committee writing a massive transportation bill, included an amendment that prohibits new federal funds from going to California's proposed $98 billion project during the five-year life of the bill.

"I want to make sure that the money that comes to California goes to highway funding," Republican Rep. Jeff Denham said in an interview.

Denham, who has moved his California residence from Atwater to Turlock, offered the amendment during a long and sometimes contentious markup of the bill dubbed the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act.

Denham's amendment, adopted by a 31-22 vote, marks the first and only time the word 'California' appears in the House transportation bill that started out at 847 pages. It was fought by Democrats, during a hearing that stretched more than 16 hours and ended at 2:45 a.m. Friday.

"I think it's a big mistake," Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, said of Denham's total high-speed rail cutoff. "The high-speed rail authority is rapidly adjusting its program, looking for ways of significantly reducing the cost."

January 29, 2012
Jerry Brown says cap-and-trade fees will fund high-speed rail

Gov. Jerry Brown said in an interview airing in Los Angeles today that California's high-speed rail project will cost far less than the state's current estimate of nearly $100 billion and that environmental fees paid by carbon producers will be a source of funding.

"It's not going to be $100 billion," the Democratic governor said on ABC 7's Eyewitness Newsmakers program. "That's way off."

Brown's remarks come as his administration prepares revisions to the California High-Speed Rail Authority's latest business plan. Brown is trying to push the project through an increasingly skeptical Legislature following a series of critical reports.

"Phase 1, I'm trying to redesign it in a way that in and of itself will be justified by the state investment," Brown said. "We do have other sources of money: For example, cap-and-trade, which is this measure where you make people who produce greenhouse gasses pay certain fees - that will be a source of funding going forward for the high speed rail."

Brown said, "It's going to be a lot cheaper than people are saying."

The annual spending plan Brown released this month included $1 billion in cap-and-trade revenue for programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The budget document lacked detail, however, saying, "Further detail on specific program areas will be developed when there is more certainty of fees received from the Cap and Trade Program."

The interview aired following Brown's trip last week to Southern California, his second in two weeks as he begins campaigning for his ballot initiative to raise taxes.

"It isn't all, you know, going to football games and buying clothes and cars and gasoline and all the things people want to do in their private life," Brown said. "We also have a public investment, and that's part of the balance of a civilization."

Brown has also proposed changes to reduce pension costs, and he suggested he may take that measure to the ballot, too, if the Legislature does not act.

"One way or the other, if we can't get it through the Legislature," he said, "then there's always the initiative route at some point."

January 24, 2012
Audit accuses high-speed rail of risky financing, contract splitting

In yet another blow to California's troubled high-speed rail project, California's state auditor said this morning that the project's financing is "increasingly risky" and its oversight inadequate.

In a follow-up report to her agency's 2010 critique of the project, state Auditor Elaine Howle said the California High-Speed Rail Authority's most recent business plan relies on uncertain funding sources and that "the program's overall financial situation has become increasingly risky."

Howle's report is the latest in a series of critical reports about the project, including by the Legislative Analyst's Office and the rail authority's own peer review group. Gov. Jerry Brown is trying to press the nearly $100 billion project through the Legislature this year.

Howle's report questions the authority's ridership projections, saying the group that reviewed those numbers was "handpicked" by the authority's chief executive officer, and it accused the authority of failing to adequately manage its many contractors.

"Without sufficient staffing," the report said, "the authority has struggled to oversee its contractors and subcontractors, who outnumber its employees by about 25 to one."

Howle also said the rail authority violated a state rule prohibiting agencies from splitting contracts to avoid competitive bidding requirements, dividing $3.1 million in information technology services into 13 different contracts with one vendor over 15 months.

In a written response, the rail authority said contract management remains "a huge challenge for the authority due to a lack of sufficient qualified staff." But it discounted as "purely speculative" Howle's claim that the plan is financially risky.

The authority all but conceded that it had mismanaged its information technology contracts, saying it "will develop procedures to detect and prevent contract splitting."

January 13, 2012
Jerry Brown vows to push forward with high-speed rail

Less than 24 hours after the chief administrator of California's troubled high-speed rail project resigned, Gov. Jerry Brown this morning defended the $98.5 billion project and said he will push it forward.

The resignation of Roelof van Ark, the chief executive officer of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, and an announcement the same day of the planned installation of Brown adviser Dan Richard as chairman of the rail board, were viewed by many as an effort by Brown to recast the project ahead of legislative hearings this year.

"I'm putting my own stamp on state government, slowly but surely," the Democratic governor told reporters after an event in Elk Grove.

He said Richard "knows his material."

The Legislature is highly skeptical of the project, and public opinion has turned against it, according to a recent Field Poll.

"We're pushing forward," Brown said. "We're going to build, but we're not going to be stupid ... We're going to be very careful and build incrementally as we go."

He said, "A lot of people want to turn off the lights. I'm not one of them. We're going to build, we're going to invest, and California is going to stay up among the great states and the great political jurisdictions of the world."

Brown was asked what people might expect to hear from him in his State of the State address next week.

He said, "You're going to hear so much that I wouldn't miss it if I were you."

January 12, 2012
California high-speed rail head Roelof van Ark resigns

LS VAN ARK 1.JPGRoelof van Ark, chief executive officer of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, announced this afternoon that he is quitting, the latest setback for the state's beleaguered campaign to build a nearly $100 billion rail network in California.

His resignation, announced at a board meeting in Los Angeles and effective in two months, comes at a critical point for the project, with rail officials bidding for Legislative approval to start construction in the Central Valley this fall. Public opinion about the project has fallen sharply, according to a recent Field Poll, and the Legislature is highly skeptical.

Minutes after van Ark's announcement, Tom Umberg announced that he is stepping down as chairman of the rail board, though he will remain a member of the board. Umberg is to be replaced next month by Dan Richard, an adviser Gov. Jerry Brown appointed to the board last year.

Brown, a Democrat, became a vocal supporter of the project last year and appointed two advisers, Richard and Mike Rossi, to the rail board. This month, Brown proposed folding the authority into a new state agency, the Transportation Agency, a measure rail officials support.

Van Ark was hired in 2010 and oversaw the authority's creation of an updated business plan that raised the estimated cost of the project to almost $100 billion over 20 years. Lawmakers said the plan was more credible than before, but many lawmakers remain critical of the project's management and cost.

Van Ark cited personal reasons for his resignation.

"I need to focus myself more on my family, and maybe some other interests," he told board members. He said he may continue on the project as a consultant.

Van Ark used his resignation announcement to reiterate his support of the rail authority's decision to start construction in the Central Valley, controversial because it is far from California's population centers. The administration signaled no change of course.

While Richard said he was "very skeptical of that notion" when he joined the board, he said, "I sit here today as somebody who's been fully convinced."

Van Ark told The Bee last year that he considered it a personal challenge to ensure implementation of the project.

"I really believe that California should have a system like this," he said. "This state is so well positioned for high-speed rail."

Editor's note: Updated at 3:05 p.m. to include comments from the meeting in Los Angeles.

PHOTO CREDIT: Roelof van Ark, 2011. The Sacramento Bee/Lezlie Sterling

January 10, 2012
High-Speed Rail Authority press secretary bound for Wal-Mart

Rachel Wall, press secretary for the embattled California High-Speed Rail Authority, is leaving the agency to do public relations for a company that has its own image issues from time to time: Wal-Mart.

Wall's departure, announced in an email late Monday night, comes as the rail authority considers overhauling its multimillion dollar outreach and communications effort statewide. The authority's nearly $100 billion bid to build a rail system connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco has come under increasing criticism from the Legislature and public, and its prospects for funding are uncertain.

Rail officials last month put on hold their effort to replace its $9 million outreach contract with Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, instead considering handling public relations in-house. Lance Simmens, the authority's deputy director for communications and public policy, is scheduled to brief rail officials on the matter at a meeting in Los Angeles on Thursday.

That will also be Wall's last day at the authority before starting work in Los Angeles for Wal-Mart, the Arkansas-based retailer.

January 10, 2012
Dianne Feinstein urges moving high-speed rail to CalTrans

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein this week added her voice to the chorus of those who want the California Department of Transportation to take over the state's increasingly controversial high-speed rail project.

In a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown made public Tuesday, Feinstein declared that "deploying the expertise and resources of Caltrans towards this effort over the next six months" could help turn the project around.

Tellingly, Feinstein added that she has spoken about the idea with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood; LaHood, the senator reported, agrees with "the importance of utilizing Caltrans' expertise."

January 5, 2012
Jerry Brown proposes folding High-Speed Rail into new agency

Gov. Jerry Brown reiterated his commitment to California's high-speed rail project today, but he also proposed additional oversight, seeking to fold the troubled High-Speed Rail Authority into a new state agency.

The annual spending plan proposed by the Democratic governor this afternoon includes continued funding for the Rail Authority's operations, but it doesn't yet include bond proceeds to start construction in the Central Valley.

"The Authority's funding plan is under review by the Department of Finance," according to a budget summary. "After the review, the Administration will propose a plan for the initial train segment."

As part of a measure to consolidate state agencies and departments, Brown proposed creating a Transportation Agency, including the Rail Authority, the Highway Patrol and the departments of Transportation and Motor Vehicles, among others.

Tom Umberg, chairman of the Rail Authority board, said in a prepared statement this afternoon, "We embrace the reorganization proposal as it provides additional support and the necessary resources to support this project."

The $98.5 billion rail project faces an increasingly skeptical Legislature and electorate as it prepares to start construction this year. Earlier this week, a peer review group said it could not recommend bond funding until the project's long-term financing plan is more certain.

Brown told reporters today that some of the objections raised by the group "were not that well founded."

"I'm of the view that this is a time for big ideas, not shrinking back and looking for a hole to climb into," he said. "I think we've got to move forward."

January 3, 2012
California review group blasts high-speed rail's funding plan

california high speed rail HSRimage1 (1).JPGIn another setback for high-speed rail in California, the project's peer review group told lawmakers today that it could not recommend bond funding for high-speed rail construction until its prospects for long-term funding are clearer.

"The fact that the Funding Plan fails to identify any long term funding commitments is a fundamental flaw in the program," the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group said in a letter to legislative leaders. "Without committed funds, a mega-project of this nature could be forced to halt construction for many years before additional funding could be obtained."

The peer review group, chaired by former Caltrans director Will Kempton, said many of the California High-Speed Rail Authority's projections remain optimistic.

The group said in its report that "we cannot overemphasize the fact that moving ahead on the HSR project without credible sources of adequate funding, without a definitive business model, without a strategy to maximize the independent utility and value to the State, and without the appropriate management resources, represents an immense financial risk on the part of the state of California."

The report comes at a crucial time, with high-speed rail proponents planning to ask the Legislature this year to appropriate bond proceeds to start construction in the Central Valley. The Rail Authority last year revised the project's estimated cost to almost $100 billion over 20 years, and public sentiment is turning against it, according to a recent Field Poll.

Gov. Jerry Brown last week reiterated his commitment to the project, and the Rail Authority today blasted the Peer Review Group's report.

Tom Umberg, chairman of the authority board, said in a letter to lawmakers that the report is "deeply flawed, in some areas misleading and its conclusions are unfounded." He appealed to lawmakers to look beyond it as they reconvene for the year on Wednesday.

"As the report presents a narrow, inaccurate and superficial assessment of the HSR program," Umberg wrote, "it does a disservice to policy-makers who must confront these decisions."

Brown spokesman Gil Duran said in an e-mail that the Peer Review Group's report "does not appear to add any arguments that are new or compelling enough to suggest a change in course."

PHOTO CREDIT: A view of a high speed train moving through a wind farm in the proposed high speed rail network. Newlands & Co. Inc., courtesy of California High-Speed Rail Authority.

December 14, 2011
House hearing lifts California high-speed rail to national stage

HSRimage1.jpgIt's unlikely many will be swayed by a high-profile House hearing Thursday on California's high-speed rail program.

Pro and con, political minds are already made up. The hearing's title, crafted by Republican leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, says it all: "California's High-Speed Rail Plan: Skyrocketing Costs and Project Concerns."

Still, the session isn't strictly for show. With testimony scheduled from seven California lawmakers, as well as from seven additional witnesses, the hearing will put one state's ambitions on a national stage while underscoring the difficulties ahead.

"The bottom line is, we want answers," said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater.

December 13, 2011
California high-Speed Rail going without statewide PR contract

MERCED - Perhaps no project in California needs an image lift more than high-speed rail.

But after trying for five months to hire a public relations company to help with that effort, state rail officials elected Tuesday to go without, at least temporarily.

California High-Speed Rail Authority board members told staff in Merced to put on hold the authority's effort to replace its current, $9 million contract with Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, which has been winding down since Ogilvy announced this summer it was quitting.

The authority plans to let the Ogilvy contract expire next week while rail officials consider handling public relations in-house.

The decision follows a report by The Bee this month that the rail authority, in addition to its payments to Ogilvy, was spending millions of dollars on regional, outreach-related sub-contracts embedded in engineering contracts. Last fiscal year, the authority spent $7.2 million on those outreach contracts, and it budgeted about $2.6 million for regional outreach this year.

Lance Simmens, the authority's deputy director for communications and public policy, said in a memorandum to authority board members that he is considering relying on those regional contractors for the authority's statewide outreach campaign, augmented by the addition of six to 10 in-house positions.

The development comes at a critical point for the state's nearly-$100 billion bid to build a high-speed rail system connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco. The project is heading into the New Year with diminished public support, and it remains unclear if the Legislature will approve funding next year.

December 6, 2011
High-speed rail blames 'uncertain economy' for voter opposition

In response to a new poll finding widespread opposition to the state's high-speed rail project, the California High-Speed Rail Authority issued a statement late Monday blaming the "uncertain economy" for voters' mood.

"To back pedal on this project means we reject billions in stimulus funds, lose 100,000 new jobs and, ultimately, pay tens of billions more for congested highways in the long run," the statement said. "The uncertain economy may give some voters pause, but this kind of infrastructure investment and job creation is exactly what we need at this time and we will be making that case to Californians across the state who voted to start this project in 2008."

According to a new Field Poll, nearly two-thirds of voters want to re-vote on the project Californians authorized in 2008, and 59 percent of voters say they would reject the measure if such an election were held.

The poll comes after the rail authority revised the project's estimated cost this fall to almost $100 billion over 20 years, more than twice what was originally thought.

November 10, 2011
High-Speed Rail official hoping for Obama win, traffic

When the California High-Speed Rail Authority released its $98.5 billion plan last week, officials said they were aware of congressional Republicans' distaste for the project.

So the authority didn't count on more federal aid for the project immediately, but it did bet it could find some over time.

Not necessarily because of anything the rail authority might do, but because President Barack Obama might win re-election, a rail official said earlier this week, and because of "continuing transportation challenges" over time.

"I think that after the 2012 election, if President Obama wins, then the 'Obama Rail' thing will, that that dynamic will be changed a bit," Tom Umberg, chairman of the rail authority, said Wednesday in an interview with The Bee's editorial board.

While suggesting criticism of the project in a post-election year might subside, Umberg also said "the other thing that exists is that the continuing transportation challenges are going to continue to add pressure" on politicians to act.

High-speed rail is expensive, the authority said in its business plan, but still cheaper than expanding airport and highway systems for California's growing population.

The rail authority plans to start construction in September. If it had two other wishes for the New Year, they might be these: that voters choose Obama on Election Day and get stuck in traffic on the way.

November 1, 2011
GOP senator wants to put high-speed rail back on the ballot

GOP Sen. Doug LaMalfa wants to send California's high-speed rail project back to the ballot in light of revised cost estimates.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority today released a revised business plan projecting that the total cost of the proposed bullet train could be $98.5 billion over 20 years, far exceeding previous estimates.

LaMalfa, a vocal critic of the project, blasted the authority's earlier cost projections and pledges for federal and private dollars for the project, saying authority members and supporters "have known all along that these targets would not be met."

The Richvale Republican said he plans to introduce legislation that would ask California voters to reconsider the $9 billion in bonds approved for the project in 2008. The bill would likely require two-thirds legislative approval.

"The voters were deceived in the original go-around with highly optimistic ridership and cost numbers that have not been born out," LaMalfa said in an interview, adding that the larger figures ""should have been in front of the voters to begin with so they would have the truth."

November 1, 2011
High-speed rail officials defend project cost, urge approval

Releasing a business plan this morning that projected it could $98.5 billion over 20 years to build California's high-speed rail project, the California High-Speed Rail Authority sought to remake the project's beleaguered image while pressing the Legislature to let it move forward.

"This plan represents a new day, a new time and a new beginning" for the project, said Tom Umberg, chairman of the rail authority board.

Authority officials lined up to speak to reporters at the California State Railroad Museum. A podium was set up in front of a Northwestern Pacific locomotive, its cow-catcher jutting out.

"High speed rail will be hard to do and hard to accomplish," said Dan Richard, a rail authority board member.

However, he said, it will be "worth it for the citizens of California."

The full report can be read here.

October 26, 2011
High-Speed Rail Authority bails again on Sacramento Press Club

A glutton for bad press, the California High-Speed Rail Authority has canceled on the Sacramento Press Club.


The rail authority, which canceled a luncheon once already at the club -- and delayed the release of its much-awaited business plan -- said this afternoon that it will still release its business plan Nov. 1.

But it will be just somewhere else.

Lance Simmens, the authority's new deputy director for communications and public policy, said he made the call "to roll out what is going to be a very significant business plan at another venue."

That venue, Simmens said, has yet to be picked.

October 4, 2011
High-Speed Rail Authority to delay business plan release

The California High-Speed Rail Authority will delay until at least Nov. 1 the release of updated financial projections for the embattled project, saying new board members need more time to review the plan.

"The California High-Speed Rail Authority has put together an extensive business plan that comprehensively addresses the future of this project," rail board Chairman Tom Umberg said in a release this morning. "At the same time, we have new appointees to the Board who weren't able to be a part of its development. This postponement will provide them the necessary time to participate."

The authority, facing criticism about he project's management and cost, planned to release a business plan in mid-October. It said the delay will not affect the project's schedule.

Gov. Jerry Brown this summer appointed former bank executive Michael Rossi and former Brown adviser Dan Richard to the rail board. Brown said he was seeking to help the authority "get their act together."

"I look forward to having these extra two weeks to delve into the business plan - which numbers in the hundreds of pages - and take a close look at the funding, ridership and implementation information it presents," Richard said in a release. "Governor Brown, the Legislature and all Californians will be well-served by a plan that lays the foundation for the future of this sorely needed transportation option."

September 29, 2011
High-speed rail project rates low in voters' priorities, poll finds

Nearly two-thirds of California's likely voters would, if given the chance, stop the state's controversial high-speed rail project, according to a new Probolsky Research poll.

The head of the Irvine-based GOP polling outfit, Adam Probolsky, said that he included state budget priorities and the proposed bullet train, which would link the northern and southern regions of the state, as "fun questions" in a wider attitudinal poll of those likely to vote in next year's election.

The poll found that 62.4 percent of respondents would vote to stop the bullet train project and virtually the same number said they are unlikely ever to travel on the train between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Finally, the project came in dead last, at 11.2 percent, in a list of voters' spending priorities, with education ranking first, followed by public safety, health and welfare services, water and protecting the environment.

The full poll on high-speed rail is available here.

September 27, 2011
California high-speed rail official caught nodding off in meeting

The action at a recent California High-Speed Rail Authority meeting apparently wasn't fast-paced enough to keep the attention of one agency official.

Lance Simmens, HSRA's new deputy director for communications and public policy, was caught nodding off at a public meeting held in Kings County last week. His brief snooze was recorded on camera by a local resident attending the meeting and later posted on the agency's Facebook page and YouTube.

The incident irked local residents and project critics on hand to comment on the proposed bullet train.

Simmens blamed lack of food and water, not lack of interest in the discussion, for his slip, according to a Facebook comment reported by the Hanford Sentinel:

"I would like to offer my sincerest apologies to those in Hanford last evening," the comment by Simmens read. "After arriving just in time to the public hearing from Sacramento, I had not had the opportunity to have either breakfast or lunch and was dehydrated due to the heat. Although I tried to tough it out, it got the best of me and for a while I felt as though I was going to pass out. After hydrating with sufficient liquids, I was revived and attentive to the comments being voiced by all of those attending last night's event. I only wish I had the chance to do so earlier and want to assure all concerned that I was trying my best to stay alert through the entire hearing. Once again, there was absolutely no intention on my part to either shirk my responsibilities or offend those in the audience. I am sure you will appreciate my embarrassment and ask that you focus on my attentiveness for the bulk of the five-hour hearing and not on the short period where I was struggling to not pass out altogether. Thank you."

A HSRA spokeswoman was not immediately available for comment.

The brief video of Simmens snoozing is posted below. Read the full Sentinel account of the incident at this link.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said the meeting was held in Kern County. It was in Kings County.

August 19, 2011
Jerry Brown names former adviser Dan Richard to rail board

After saying earlier this week that he is working with the California High-Speed Rail Authority to "get their act together," Gov. Jerry Brown this afternoon appointed an adviser from his first administration to the rail authority board.

Dan Richard, Brown's deputy legal affairs secretary and deputy assistant for science and technology when Brown was governor before, replaces Curt Pringle, the former Assembly speaker and Anaheim mayor who resigned last month from the beleaguered agency's board.

Richard, 60, of Piedmont, was previously a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District board and senior vice president of public policy and governmental relations at Pacific Gas and Electric Co. Like Brown, Richard is a Democrat.

The appointment comes as Brown seeks to push ahead with California's bid to build a high-speed rail system connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco. The project's cost and management have come under increasing criticism this year.

Brown said during a visit to Fresno on Wednesday that his administration is "working directly with the authority to get their act together."

Thomas Umberg, chairman of the rail authority board, praised Richard in a prepared statement.

"His experience and skills make it clear why he has the confidence of Governor Brown," Umberg said.

July 29, 2011
Jeffrey Barker leaving High-Speed Rail Authority

Jeffrey Barker, executive officer for communications, policy and public outreach at the California High-Speed Rail Authority, is leaving the embattled agency.

The move comes as Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, continues to recast the administration. Barker, a Republican, was appointed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and was an aide to Schwarzenegger before joining the Rail Authority.

Barker said he expects to work through next week.

July 21, 2011
High-speed rail's Ogilvy lobbyist in D.C. disembarks

The California High-Speed Rail Authority is one lobbyist down in D.C. following the departure of Ogilvy Public Relations.

This week, Ogilvy formally reported to the Senate the termination of its lobbying services for the high-speed rail authority. Ogilvy further reported that Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist Drew Maloney had been paid a total of $60,000 this year for his high-speed rail work.

A Republican veteran of Capitol Hill, Maloney works for Ogilvy Government Relations, a subsidiary of Ogilvy Public Relations. Ogilvy PR quit its $9 million contract with the high-speed rail authority in late June, amid accounts that it was about to be fired.

Democrat Mark Kadesh, formerly chief of staff to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, remains registered as a D.C. lobbyist for the rail group.

July 18, 2011
Pringle quits California High-Speed Rail Authority board

Curt Pringle resigned today from the embattled California High-Speed Rail Authority board, saying he is doing so to "focus my attention on my company and my other responsibilities."

The former Assembly speaker and Anaheim mayor was chairman of the board for two years before his term ended in June.

"Over the past two years, we have accomplished much in moving this project from a vision to a reality: the hiring of a world-class CEO, being awarded over $3.5 billion in federal funding and deciding on a construction starting segment," Pringle wrote in a letter to the current board chairman, Thomas Umberg. "But that effort has taken much hard work and much more hard work will be needed."

California's bid to build a high speed rail system connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco has come under increasing scrutiny, with lingering questions about the route's location and cost.

Pringle said in his letter that he continues to support the project and is confident it will be finished. However, he said the project "will not be successful without political leadership from the governor." With his resignation, Pringle wrote, Gov. Jerry Brown "will have the ability to appoint someone to reflect his point of view."

Umberg praised Pringle in a prepared statement, saying he "helped turn this project from an idea into a reality."

June 30, 2011
Public relations firm Ogilvy quits high speed rail

Its job performance coming under increasing scrutiny, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide is quitting its multimillion dollar contract with the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

"We were unable to develop a solid working relationship with your agency, and that impeded the kind of top-notch work we are accustomed to providing our clients," the public relations company's Michael Law said in a letter Wednesday to rail officials.

The rail authority is struggling to maintain political support as it prepares to start building a rail system between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It has faced questions about cost and ridership projections, among other concerns.

Former state Sen. Quentin Kopp, a former rail authority board member, encouraged rail officials in March to cancel Ogilvy's contract. He said the company's failure was evident in worsening public statements about the project.

The rail board was expected to consider its outreach efforts at a meeting this month. Rail Authority spokesman Jeff Barker said Thursday that rail officials plan replace Ogilvy.

June 3, 2011
Legislature votes to tighten up oversight of high-speed rail

Reacting to criticism from a variety of sources about management of the state's high-speed rail project, the Legislature on Friday moved a second bill to reduce the autonomy of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

The Assembly approved Assembly Bill 145, which would make the authority an advisory body while shifting control of the project to a new state agency called the Department of High-Speed Trains.

The move comes after the Senate on Wednesday voted 26-12 vote to approve Senate Bill 517, which would shift the HSRA into the state Business, Transportation and Housing Agency. Its author is Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, who has been one of the project's sharpest legislative critics.

As envisioned, high-speed trains would connect the southern and northern metropolitan areas of the state through the San Joaquin Valley at speeds up to 200 miles per hour. It's to be financed with a $9.95 billion bond issue already approved by voters plus funds from the federal government and outside investors.

Controversies have erupted over routes and what critics say is a faulty business plan that relies on inflated ridership estimates. A number of outside organizations, including the Legislature's budget analyst, MacTaylor, have joined in the critical chorus.

During Friday's brief floor debate, Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Laguna Niguel, warned colleagues that the project is a looming financial disaster. But the author of AB 145, Livingston Democrat Cathleen Galgiani replied, "The train has left the station. We're trying to make go on the right track." Her measure was approved by a 50-16 vote.

May 11, 2011
High-speed rail project gets another critique

It's a double-whammy for California's high-speed rail project.

On Tuesday, the Legislature's budget analyst, Mac Taylor, released a sharply critical report of the California High-Speed Rail Authority's efforts to build a bullet train system linking the northern and southern halves of the state.

Today, the chairman of a "peer review" committee that also reviewed the project is due to air many of the same criticisms to a special state Senate committee that's overlooking the project.

Will Kempton, a former state transportation director who now heads the Orange County Transportation Authority, told the Legislature in a letter last week that while he and other members of the peer review team see some improvements in the HSRA's operations, there are still many shortcomings.

The letter cites the authority's lack of staff to oversee dozens of consulting contracts and unanswered questions about costs, public and private financing, the extent of taxpayers' exposure and ridership projections, among other issues.

Voters approved a $9.95 billion bond issue to finance the state's share of the bullet train system, with the remainder to come from the federal government, local transit systems and private investors. But the costs of the system have been in flux. The current number for the first phase between Anaheim and San Francisco is $43 billion but Taylor and Kempton both contend that the real number is probably higher.

State law also bars taxpayer-financed subsidies for bullet train operations but Kempton's team says it's unclear what that means.

The project was to be discussed by an Assembly budget committee this morning but the hearing was delayed so that legislators could digest Taylor's report. He recommended that the HSRA receive only token funds to continue its operations until several issues are ironed out.

May 10, 2011
LAO criticizes high-speed rail project's financing, management

California's high-speed rail project is threatened by erratic financing, the state's precarious financial situation and management shortcomings and should be overhauled, the Legislature's budget analyst said Tuesday.

The highly critical report by Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor's office concluded that management of the project be shifted from the state High-Speed Rail Authority into the Department of Transportation and the entire program undergo reevaluation -- especially the decision to build an initial segment in the San Joaquin Valley.

The report details "a number of problems that pose threats to the high-speed rail project's successful development" and adds: "The Legislature faces some challenging choices about whether to continue with a project that, despite the problems outlined above, could have some reductions in spending for transportation improvements as well as air quality and other environmental benefits."

Gov. Jerry Brown has asked for an $185 million appropriation to keep the project moving, but the analyst says only $7 million should be approved "at this time" while managerial and operational questions are answered.

The report was the latest in a string of critical outside examinations of the project, which envisions high-speed trains connecting Northern California with the south part of the state through the San Joaquin Valley. The project's lack of a cogent business plan and its ridership projections have been sharply criticized in official reviews and there are numerous fights over specific routes, especially on the San Francisco Peninsula.

Rail authority CEO Roelof van Ark issued a statement on the report saying he believes the project "has been successful thus far because it has strived to operate more like a private business than a typical government bureaucracy."

"I hope to work with the Legislature to come up with solutions that benefit all Californians and allow us to move forward with the successful completion of the state's high-speed rail system - and we hope that this report at least encourages healthy discussion towards that goal," he said.

The full report can be found here.

Editor's note: This post was updated at 12:53 p.m. with a statement from van Ark.

May 9, 2011
California lands more high speed rail funds

California's high-speed rail plans picked up more momentum Monday, as the Obama administration announced an additional $368 million to boost rail travel through the Central Valley.

The grant includes $300 million to stretch the initial high-speed rail route from Bakersfield toward Merced, and $68 million to purchase rail equipment.

California's share is part of $2 billion newly awarded by the Transportation Department as a result of Florida rejecting the rail funds.

"These projects will put thousands of Americans to work, save hundreds of thousands of hours for American travelers every year, and boost U.S. manufacturing," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood declared.

The California money will enable the state to extend its high-speed rail route an additional 20 miles. Transportation Department officials said Monday this will "take the track and civil work from Fresno to the 'Wye' junction, which will provide a connection to San Jose to the West and Merced to the north."

A separate federal grant will help the state buy 15 passenger rail cars and 4 locomotives for use on the Pacific Surfliner, San Joaquin, and Capitol Corridors in California.

Twenty-four states, the District of Columbia and Amtrak submitted nearly 100 applications for the Florida funds.

March 15, 2011
High-speed rail gains congressional caucus

Sometimes, it seems like everyone gets their own congressional caucus on Capitol Hill. There's a Friends of Norway Caucus, an Afterschool Caucus, a Zero Capital Gains Tax Caucus. And then there are the really big ones, like the 200--plus member Congressional Wine Caucus, currently co-chaired by Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River.

Now, high-speed rail aficionados will get a caucus to call their own.

On Wednesday, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, will join with House and Senate members at Washington's Union Station to tout formation of what they call the new Bi-Cameral High- Speed & Intercity Passenger Rail Caucus.

Politically, the new group has its work cut out for it, as a number of congressional Republicans have voiced skepticism about high-speed rail projects, including California's multibillion dollar plan.

February 17, 2011
Rep. Jeff Denham moves to restrict high-speed rail

Freshman Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, caught some of his fellow California lawmakers by surprise this week when he authored an amendment to block federal funding this year for California's high-speed rail program.

Late Wednesday, he withdrew his amendment in exchange for what he says is an agreement to secure more federal oversight.

The amendment was one of nearly 600 House members authored, but didn't always introduce for a vote. Denham said that Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Penn., agreed to maintain oversight of the state's use of federal dollars in the high-speed rail program. Shuster chairs the House Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials subcommittee. Shuster further agreed to hold a hearing in California if necessary, Denham said.

On Thursday, Denham joined Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, in introducing legislation that would allow California to turn over its federal high-speed rail dollars to improvements along State Route 99.

In practice, there could well be some legal impediments to taking federal funds provided for one purpose and turning them to another; as a symbolic gesture, though, the bill makes a statement over what Denham termed the "ever-escalating costs" of California's high-speed rail project..

February 16, 2011
Florida's loss California's gain for high-speed rail?

Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday rejected a federal offer of $2.4 billion for high-speed rail projects, a move that could conceivably create another opening for California.

In a statement, quickly picked up on by the Miami Herald's Leslie Clark, Scott said he didn't think the proposed Tampa-to-Orlando line made economic sense.

"Capital cost overruns on the project could put Florida on the hook for an additional $3 billion," Scott said.

Some Florida lawmakers, though, pinpointed their own fears that California might pick up the dropped offerings.

"Governor Scott's decision demonstrates a devastating lack of vision for Florida and a lack of understanding of our economic situation," Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla. said. "He should immediately reconsider his decision in order to save these jobs and not send the investment dollars to California and other states.

February 8, 2011
Obama proposes new boost for high speed rail

The Obama administration on Tuesday accelerated its plans for high-speed rail, as Vice President Joe Biden announced a six-year, $53 billion plan.

The ambitious proposal is meeting with applause from California's high-speed rail proponents, some of whom were in the audience for the announcement, but it is also facing skepticism from congressional Republicans.

Meeting with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, Biden said the administration's upcoming budget will propose a further down-payment of $8 billion for high-speed rail. Biden and LaHood contended the funding, and the longer-term plans, will provide the kind of federal commitment state and local agencies require for their own planning.

"In America, we pride ourselves on dreaming big and building big," LaHood said.

The proposal presented Tuesday did not identify state-by-state funding. California could expect a share, though; Roelof van Ark, the chief executive officer of California's High Speed Rail Authority, was, not coincidentally, in the Philadelphia audience.

But on Capitol Hill, where the funding rubber meets the road, key GOP leaders are saying slow down.

"This is like giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio," said Rep. John Mica of Florida, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

January 27, 2011
Court says Legislature can't write own ballot language

A state appeals court today ruled that the state Legislature did not have authority to draft its own ballot language for the successful high-speed rail bond measure lawmakers placed on the 2008 ballot.

State law tasks the state attorney general with writing an impartial ballot title, label and official summary for "measures to be voted on throughout the State," though the Legislature has in the past drafted language for measures it places on the ballot with a two-thirds vote.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association had challenged the ballot language for Proposition 1A, arguing the Legislature used its pen to "lavish praise on its measure in language that virtually mirrored the argument in favor of the proposition."

The appeals court sided with HJTA, ruling in a 23-page decision published today.

"Simply stated, the Legislature cannot dictate the ballot label, title and official summary for a statewide measure unless the Legislature obtains approval of the electorate to do so prior to placement of the measure on the ballot," the decision reads.

HJTA President Jon Coupal applauded the decision, saying "no longer can the California Legislature use the ballot pamphlet as a biased advertising for its own pet ballot measures."

The decision does not invalidate the passage of the high-speed rail act, which was approved with roughly 52 percent of the vote. It is unclear how it will impact the water bond and "rainy day fund" measures already approved for future ballots.

Read the full decision here.

December 3, 2010
New study sharply criticizes high-speed rail project

California's high-speed rail project has been sharply criticized in recent months by the Legislature, by the Legislature's budget analyst, and by the University of California's Institute of Transportation Studies.

This week, as the High-Speed Rail Authority was approving the first segment for construction near Fresno - and receiving more criticism from advocates of other regions - it was also being hammered by a "peer review group" of transportation experts.

The ad hoc group of experts, organized by the Legislature and headed by Will Kempton, the former state director of transportation, said in a report that the project needs "a thorough reassessment of a number of critical engineering, financial, economic and managerial issues."

It describes a chicken-or-the-egg series of critical issues that must be resolved, including a lack of adequate staff, a business model that clarifies who will be responsible for what phase of the project, the changing political climate for the massive federal aid the project would require and strategies for attracting outside investment under the restrictions imposed by the ballot measure that authorized the project.

December 2, 2010
Legal opinion hits two bullet train board members

Two members of the state's High-Speed Rail Authority have been serving illegally because they hold "incompatible offices" barred by state law, the Department of Justice says in an opinion sought by a state senator.

Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, sought the opinion in response to news media accounts and complaints by former Sen. Quentin Kopp, who carried legislation creating the agency that's working on a high-speed train system linking Souithern and Northern California.

Specifically, Lowenthal asked whether Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, a former state Assembly speaker, and former Assemblyman Richard Katz, could legally serve on the HSRA. At the time, Katz was a member of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Critics said that it was improper for Pringle and Katz to serve on the state board while directly or indirectly representing their communities in dealings on bullet train routes, station sites and other matters.

The Department of Justice opinion, published this week, backs Kopp and other critics, concluding, "In this case, each of the offices in question falls within the definition of a public office. Each is either an elective office (as is the mayor of the City of Anaheim) or an appointed membership on a governmental board (as are the members of transit districts), and all of them carry some of the sovereign powers of government. We conclude, therefore, that each of the offices in question is a public office subject to the prohibitions of section 1099."

The opinion comes too late to affect Pringle and Katz. The latter resigned from the HSRA Wednesday as the opinion was released and Pringle's term as mayor of Anaheim ends next week, so he can remain on the state board.

It would, however, affect future appointments to the authority, which has come under intense legislative scrutiny in recent months for its decisions and what critics say is an incomplete business plan for the proposed system.


Capitol Alert Staff

Amy Chance Amy Chance is political editor for The Sacramento Bee. Twitter: @Amy_Chance

Dan Smith Dan Smith is Capitol bureau chief for The Sacramento Bee. Twitter: @DanielSnowSmith

Jim Miller Jim Miller covers California policy and politics and edits Capitol Alert. Twitter: @jimmiller2

David Siders David Siders covers the Brown administration. Twitter: @davidsiders

Christopher Cadelago Christopher Cadelago covers California politics and health care. Twitter: @ccadelago

Laurel Rosenhall Laurel Rosenhall covers the Legislature, the lobbying community and higher education. Twitter: @LaurelRosenhall

Jeremy White Jeremy B. White covers the Legislature. Twitter: @capitolalert

Koseff Alexei Koseff edits Capitol Alert's mobile Insider Edition. Twitter: @akoseff

Dan Walters Dan Walters is a columnist for The Sacramento Bee. Twitter: @WaltersBee

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