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Gubernatorial candidates won’t discuss bullet train

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LOS ANGELES — It’s the biggest infrastructure project in state history, but the California bullet train gets hardly any attention on the campaign trail.

The leading candidates for governor have said little publicly about how they would fix dire problems in the $77-billion mega-project that has already overrun its initial cost estimate by $44 billion.

The next governor will inherit a financial storm and face the tasks of finding money to bore tunnels under three mountain ranges, develop complex passages through the state’s biggest urban regions and avoid further political compromises that would slow travel along the route.
Yet the California political system is largely shying away from addressing the problems at the very moment when the project’s chief proponent, Gov. Jerry Brown, prepares to leave office.

Fixes will grow ever more costly as decisions are delayed, and the probability of even greater problems will increase, infrastructure experts say. Every six-month delay in making decisions drives hundreds of millions of dollars in future inflationary costs.

A new business plan, approved by the state rail authority last week, presents an ambitious 2033 completion date — but offers few details about how it can be executed on time. Based on the authority’s cost and schedule figures, meeting the deadline would require spending about $4.6 billion a year that doesn’t exist, an average of nearly $13 million per calendar day — a staggering construction rate never approached in U.S. history.
“Successful projects have adequate funding and realistic plans from the start,” said Bent Flyvbjerg, professor and chairman of Major Program Management at Oxford University’s Said Business School and one of the world’s top experts on high-speed rail projects. “They don’t say we are optimistic about the budget. California is unusual in the degree of uncertainty. It is very risky.”

Over the last decade, three independent advisory panels and the chairmen of three legislative committees have told the state rail authority that basing plans on uncertain funding would undermine the system’s long-term success.
Those warnings were repeated in recent weeks, when the Legislative Analyst’s Office and the state-appointed peer review committee told lawmakers that the 2018 business plan is “not viable.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Gavin Newsom and John Chiang and Republican candidates John Cox and Travis Allen declined requests for interviews on the issue or did not return phone calls. Delaine Eastin could not be reached when her staff was contacted last week.

Of the leading candidates, only Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat, discussed how he would fix the project. In an interview, he said the bullet train would become an economic engine for the state and he would find private investors that can plug the funding gap — despite the state’s failure in recent years to attract such capital. He wants to streamline permitting and find ways to cut costs, he said.

In a recent debate, Democratic candidates said they wanted to keep the project going, though they did not address its problems. Eastin has said she would impose an oil severance tax on petroleum producers that could be used to finance the bullet train.

Cox has said he would kill the project, though it isn’t clear how he would unwind the project without violating federal grant agreements. Allen also said in a debate that he would end the project.

The forces restraining detailed discussion of the project’s future grow out of many fears: the consequences of betraying Brown, the scant political payoff in discussing government dysfunction, the possibility that the problems have no legitimate solutions and the potential of alienating the rail system’s supporters.

“They can’t talk about it,” said Art Bauer, a retired Senate staffer who was involved in launching the project. “You can’t fix it as it is currently conceptualized. And anything you say could alienate your base.”

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