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Plain language about managers at California’s high-speed rail system

More uncertainty is emerging about California’s planned $43 billion bullet train system, after a state report recommended a serious shakeup in the management and spending on the joint federal and state project.

As Dan Weikel of the Los Angeles Times reports, California’s non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office released a 28-page report raising serious doubts about both the decisions being made and the decision-makers themselves. The report urges that management of the entire project be stripped from its appointed board — the California High Speed Rail Authority — and turned over to the state Department of Transportation, more commonly known as Caltrans.

According to Weikel’s story, moving from appointed overseers to bureaucratic leadership will “ensure that the state’s overall interests are taken into account as the project is developed.”  Anyone good at parsing government reports would recognize this as a massive red flag.

The news comes only days after the San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Cabanatuan reported that board officials are mulling plans to have the train line end about two miles from San Francisco’s Financial District and most transit connections at a commuter station, or skip San Francisco entirely and stop construction 50 miles south in San Jose.

The Legislative Analyst’s report calls on sharply reducing planned expenditures on consultants for management services and public outreach from $185 million to $7 million, a 96 percent reduction.

The report also called on federal officials to loosen some of the strictures placed on federal grants awarded to the project, enabling more flexibility for state officials on where and when to spend the money. Officials are supposed to break ground next year.

Most ominously, the report expresses little confidence in the capabilities of the High Speed Rail Authority. “We have concluded that the current governance structure for the project is no longer appropriate and is too weak to ensure that this mega-project is coordinated and managed effectively,” researchers said. Ouch.

Turning the project over to Caltrans however may fail to deliver much public confidence. As the San Francisco Bay Area approaches the 22nd anniversary of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, residents are still awaiting the opening of a new $6.3 billion bridge from Oakland halfway to San Francisco to replace the quake-damaged W.P.A.-era span. The new bridge was supposed to open over a decade ago at a cost of $900 million.

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