WASHINGTON — Federal auditors are now scrutinizing California's politically embattled high-speed rail program, in a search for facts that could turn up the heat.
Prompted by Republican congressional skeptics, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office has started examining some of the most crucial questions surrounding the California project, including cost, ridership and potential ticket prices.
"The fact that they are looking at it is good news for the taxpayer, and it's good news for the high-speed rail authority itself," Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, Calif., said in an interview Thursday. "We shouldn't just go out and waste money."
The government watchdog agency confirmed Thursday that it is undertaking the California high-speed rail study in response to a congressional request made last December. A dozen House members, including Denham, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and eight others from California, made the original request.
With the help of some $3.6 billion in federal funds, combined with state dollars, the California High-Speed Rail Authority intends to start construction on an initial route connecting Bakersfield to Merced.
Ultimately, the state plan calls for high-speed rail lines connecting Los Angeles with San Francisco, at a currently estimated price tag of some $98 billion. The federal auditors are supposed to probe some of the plan's most sensitive aspects, including:
-- The amount of state and federal money that will be needed both to complete the project and to operate it annually.
--The accuracy of the ridership projections relied upon by state officials in determining cost-effectiveness. The California High-Speed Rail Authority has projected attracting between 88 million and 117 million passengers annually by the year 2030.
-- The price of tickets necessary to keep the rail project self-sustaining without continued reliance on government subsidies. For its own studies, the rail authority pegged ticket costs at half the average airfare between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Other studies have previously raised similar questions, and the Republican-controlled House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure last year hosted a long hearing into the project. But the new GAO study will be the first independent federal inquiry of its kind.
"The importance of a thorough and independent audit cannot be overstated," McCarthy said in a statement. "California taxpayers will be on the hook... and we need to know the truth about the viability of this project."
When McCarthy, Denham and other lawmakers requested the federal inquiry, rail authority officials said that they would welcome the additional fact-finding as they seek to regain public momentum.
"I think it's good," Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, Calif., a high-speed rail supporter, said of the new study. "I support full transparency, as long they do a thorough and fair job."
The Government Accountability Office serves as the investigative arm of Congress, and it often finds fault or program vulnerabilities, though sometimes after the fact. On Thursday, for instance, the agency revealed that Pentagon costs to implement a 2005 round of military base-closings jumped by $14 billion, or 67 percent, over original Defense Department predictions.
GAO spokeswoman Jennifer Ashley said Thursday that while the California rail study is under way, "we don't have a release date as of yet."
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