A panel of transportation and finance experts is raising doubt about the ability of the state's High-Speed Rail Authority to develop a system of high-speed trains spanning the state over the next 10 years.
Insufficient staffing to supervise the project, an overreliance on consultants, a murky financial plan, uncertainty over future costs and other issues threaten to derail the 800-mile system before the first mile of track is even built, according to a letter to key state legislators from the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group.
The group, headed by former California Department of Transportation director Will Kempton, was formed as a requirement of Proposition 1A, the state's $9.95 billion high-speed rail bond measure approved by voters in 2008.
The panel is charged with reviewing the planning, engineering and financing of the rail authority's plans and analyzing the viability of the project.
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"We are concerned ... that the staff level now permitted is totally inadequate to oversee a project of this magnitude," the panel said in the report, which surfaced after the authority voted last week to begin construction with a 54-mile stretch between Borden in Madera County and Corcoran.
Other parts of the report echo earlier concerns raised by legislators, the state auditor and University of California professors over ridership and revenue projections described by some as overly optimistic.
But the group also calls for "a thorough reassessment of critical engineering, financial, economic and managerial issues" hampering the project.
Kempton, who is CEO of the Orange County Transportation Authority, said Monday that the peer panel's goal is to strengthen, not undermine, the high-speed rail effort.
"This is a very large infrastructure project, maybe one of the largest in the nation's history," Kempton said. "And like anything this size, it'll have challenges and uncertainties.
"But if it is going to be successful, these issues are going to have to be addressed."
The proposed rail system -- with an estimated price tag of about $43 billion -- is intended to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles through the San Joaquin Valley by 2020, with passenger trains zipping at speeds of up to 220 mph.
The panelists suggest that the rail authority, legislators and governor cooperate to provide enough staff -- and appropriate compensation -- to manage the effort.
"Anything less will ensure major problems of budget management, cost control, project accountability and schedule slippage," the report states.
But the group also questions whether the state government is up to the task.
Rather than a government-agency model "in which the Authority is now mired," the group suggests that some other organizational structure -- such as a publicly owned corporation like Amtrak -- may offer more effective and flexible management.
Other critical needs identified by the peer panel are:
-- Defining a business model that clearly outlines how the state and private entities will cooperate in the ownership, financing, construction and operation of a high-speed rail system.
-- Realistically evaluating the legal, environmental, financial and other risks and uncertainty surrounding the project.
-- Addressing the fiscal gap between what the project is expected to cost and the amount of money now available.
-- Reassessing estimates of future ridership and how much income may come from ticket sales.
-- Addressing uncertainty over the availability and cost of right of way for tracks in portions of the proposed routes.
-- Thoroughly analyzing technical, safety and seismic issues, including what proportion of the track system will be at ground level, elevated or below grade.
"I think this report validates some of the very same issues we've raised," said state Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, chairman of the senate's Transportation and Housing Committee.
Lowenthal, who describes himself as a supporter of high-speed rail, has been critical of the rail authority for what he has described as unrealistic projections of ridership and revenue and lack of a business plan.
Lowenthal said he expects to convene a hearing in December or January for Kempton and other peer-review group members to present their findings. He said he believes tough questions about the authority's expectations ultimately will serve to strengthen the organization and its prospects for success.
In a statement, the rail authority said it appreciated the peer panel's questions and suggestions, "including its clear call to lawmakers to support the project by providing the Authority the resources necessary to create the nation's first high-speed rail system."
The peer report will likely provide additional ammunition for opponents of high-speed rail.
Tal Cloud, a Fresno County businessman, political director of the Fresno County Lincoln Club and an outspoken foe of high-speed rail, said he fears the project may become for California what the failed Granite Park development or the bankrupt Fresno Metropolitan Museum are in the city of Fresno -- examples of poor decision-making and money ill-spent.
"I think every one of those issues is legitimate," Cloud said of the concerns raised by the panel. "Those are problems that need to be addressed, because if we don't, we're going to get down the road and it will be a failure."