California's high-speed rail project was the center of a field hearing in Madera, Calif., on Tuesday, when House Transportation Committee's Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Chairman Jeff Denham (R-CA) brought together a panel to discuss the issue.
Attendees at the field hearing heard from several witnesses: California High-Speed Rail Authority Chairman Dan Richard, Preserve Our Heritage Vice President Kole Upton, Kings County Board of Supervisors Chairman Doug Verboon, Madera County Farm Bureau Executive Director Anja Raudabaugh, California High-Speed Rail Project Peer Review Group Chairman Louis Thompson, and Fresno Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Al Smith.
Denham, who originally supported the $33 billion project while serving in the State Senate years ago, expressed his concerns with several aspects of the project, including the growing cost (now at $68.4 billion) and where the money would come from, location of the proposed track, and what he deemed a lack of transparency for the project. Denham said his main concern was that the current high-speed rail plan differed from California's Proposition 1A, the ballot measure passed by California voters in 2008.
"Given the dramatic changes to the project, is it not our responsibility to go back to the voters and ask them if they are willing to pay for it?" Denham asked.
Thompson, whose group was established by law upon the passage of Proposition 1A, said that the Peer Review Group supports California's high-speed rail in concept, but has concerns with the project, such as its lack of complete project funding, which carries the risk of an incomplete project; proposals that "were essentially free-standing with little recognition of the need for access to stations or connectivity to conventional commuter rail"; demand forecasting; capital costs; operating and maintenance cost models; and effective project control/management resources.
While Richard acknowledged the project had encountered some setbacks, it had also experienced success through the adoption of its 2012 Business Plan, which outlines the entire program; the development of a more clear and focused vision; creation of partnerships between other state and regional agencies; building an executive team that brings leadership and talent to the project; obtaining approval and appropriation from the California State Legislature to start construction on the project; receiving the Record of Decision from the Federal Railroad Administration on the first section, which allows for construction to begin; the release of a Government Accountability Office report, which gave high marks to the cost, revenue, ridership, and economic impact analysis for the project; and the receipt, evaluation, and opening of bids on the project's first design-build contract.
"The vision that has sustained this program over the years is to develop a new, fast, reliable high-speed rail system to help keep the State of California and the nation moving as we grow," Richard said. "I am pleased and proud to report that over the last year, we have taken a number of tangible steps forward and made tremendous progress in furthering this vision."
Additional information on the field hearing, "Oversight of California High-Speed Rail," is available here.