High-Speed Rail Wreck?
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White House Threatens to Take Back Bullet Train Funding

May 24, 2012

The White House is threatening to take back $3.3 billion in federal grants to California to start construction of a bullet train, if the Legislature does not appropriate the state's share of the funding by June, reports the Daily Journal.

Gov. Jerry Brown wants to start building this year a $6 billion track segment running from Bakersfield to Fresno (The complete $68 billion project will link Los Angeles and Anaheim to San Francisco). But key senators want to hold more public hearings on the controversial project and are balking at the Transportation Department's deadline. It is also not clear whether the department can legally rescind the grants.

High-Speed Rail Wreck?

February 2012

Thomas J. Umberg

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California's ambitions to build a high-speed rail system that links San Francisco and Los Angeles via a two-and-a-half-hour train ride appear to be derailing. Pummeled by lawsuits, soaring costs, and partisan politics, the project last month received a scathing peer review that urged state legislators not to approve $2.7 billion in bond sales for the project until it improves its business plan. The following week the California High-Speed Rail Authority's CEO, Roelof van Ark, and board chairman, Thomas J. Umberg, resigned. Umberg, a litigator for Manatt, Phelps & Phillips and a former California assemblyman, will remain on the board after his chairmanship ends this month. We spoke with him about the system's future. -V.S.

Q. Is the project on the verge of collapse?

It's still moving forward at full speed. I understand the public perception, and I also understand that a project like this is not unlike the construction of the [state's] aqueduct, the Golden Gate Bridge, the campuses of the University of California, and the I-5. Especially at the outset, they undergo extensive and sometimes withering criticism.

Why has the project's cost more than doubled to $100 billion?

The number to build out the entire system by 2033 is certainly a very large number. But the way to view the project is in segments. The first 130 miles will be built with the $6 billion that we have currently in hand. The next portion, which will allow travelers to go from the Central Valley to either the L.A. Basin or the Bay Area on true high-speed rail, costs approximately $30 billion, of which we have identified $12 billion for construction.

Why did you step down as chairman?

With a full-time practice and my involvement in the Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan, it doesn't do the project justice to have me continue as the chair. ... Contrary to press reports, the peer review really didn't have anything to do with it. ... Probably the most important thing ... is to have the [rail authority] move into the newly created Department of Transportation, because it means that it will have adequate staff and the governor can exercise more effective leadership.

Given the administration's support, would you say the project is better off now than it was six months ago?

I may be the only person in California who says that, but yes, I would.

Of the many lawsuits filed by municipalities regarding the project, which concerns you the most?

We're in the unique position of having been sued to keep the project out of and to bring it into communities. There is nothing sure in life other than death, taxes, and litigation. ... Thus far we've been successful in all litigation filed, and we're being careful to comply with [the California Environmental Quality Act] and [the National Environmental Policy Act].

Reader Comments

Ivonne Centeno - February 20, 2012
I wanted to express support for the high speed rail system. It's exactly the kind of project California needs. Creating jobs and not to mention providing a needed services, connecting Californians in a way that we have never been connected before and creating new opportunities. I think it is good for our economy and business across California.

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