PALMDALE, Calif.–There has been a lot of buzz in the last few years about the high-speed rail coming through the City of Palmdale, but when construction will begin is still up in the air.

The project–sometimes called a bullet train–has been on the table since 1996. The idea was spawned, when the California High-Speed Rail Authority estimated that the project would produce nearly 600,000 construction jobs, as well as 450,000 permanent government and private jobs.

The bullet train is the way of the future, providing commuters with an opportunity to travel from Sacramento to Los Angeles in as little as two hours, say supporters.

Along with convenience, the train is expected to boost the California economy, raking in at least $1 billion in “revenue surplus,” according to the Authority website.

In Antelope Valley, where the train would stop in Palmdale, Mayor Jim Ledford particularly welcomes the project.

“We believe that the high-speed rail project that’s coming to Palmdale will be a vital part of our intermodal transportation hub that’s being created right now,” the mayor commented. “The convergence of the Antelope Valley Freeway, the High Desert Corridor project, the Desert Express train to Las Vegas, Metrolink and the high-speed rail station will make Palmdale the transportation center of not only the Antelope Valley, but the entire High Desert .”

While some are excited about the project, others remain skeptical and quite critical of the planning.

Concern has risen about several aspects of the project, including the budget, spending, and safety.
Reason Magazine recently published an article, bashing the validity of the plan, and scrutinizing the planners about how the money is being spent. The publication called the un-built, 14-year-old idea of a high-speed train, a mystery.

Other critics are questioning the Authority about this invisible train and how much more federal money they will need to complete it.

Juan Blanco, a Palmdale community member has been following the issue for some time. He does not see any real use for the train in this part of California and is stumped about how the money is being spent.

“We don’t know where the money is going. Nobody knows about what’s going on with the high-speed rail except for the High Speed Rail Authority,” he commented, adding that there is no true accountability for the spending. “Californians do not need a high-speed rail because it’s a local train anyway. The high-speed rail in California is what people do in Van Nuys–they jack rabbit from one light to the next.”

In April of this year, California State Auditor Elaine M. Howle issued a report concerning the high-speed rail. She says in her report that the Authority is not prepared to manage the finances of the project. While a combined $13.50 billion of federal and state money has been approved and more than $250 million has been spent, not one track has been laid and no visible signs of progress have manifested since the project’s inception.

Howle reports several problems with the Authority’s execution of their business plan, including the lack of expenditure reports. According to the audit, the Authority is already over-spending on a rail system that hasn’t even broken ground.

For example, Howle writes that a July 2009 report indicated that, “a regional contractor has completed 81 percent of planned hours, but has spent 230 percent of planned dollars.”
Further, she reports that a tracking system documenting progress of work performed by contractors is not in place, however, $4 million in invoices have been paid out to contractors whose work cannot be proved.

Additionally, the auditor calls out the Authority for planning to overspend. In the business plan, the Authority discloses an expenditure timeline, revealing that they plan to spend more than the amount of approved funds by 2013; but the project is scheduled to be complete in 2020.

In response to the charges of disorganization, the Authority recently hired a senior executive, Roelof van Ark, to oversee the project. He will be heading the high-speed rail project with a salary of $375,000.

“Building the first high-speed rail system in the nation is no ordinary job. It is the biggest public works project in the country–and the largest environmental review in history,” Authority chairman, Curt Pringle, said in a statement. “Roelof van Ark is the world-class manager and engineer we need to take the reins of this project and turn the promise of a high-speed rail into a reality for the people of California.

In 1996, the California High-Speed Rail Authority established the high-speed rail project. But the Authority did not submit a business plan until 2000.

In 2008, voters passed Proposition 1A, the Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century, to release $9 billion toward the building the high-speed rail. Since then, the federal government has also approved $2.25 billion toward the project. However, the business plan reflects an expectation of a total of $19 billion of federal money to be awarded to the project, $14 billion in state and local grants and $12 billion from private investors to fund the project. The high-speed rail is expected to cost about $45 billion.

In response to the auditor’s report, the CHSRA released the following statement:
“The Authority is committed to transparency and believes strongly that additional spotlight on our operations will ultimately make for a better high-speed train project for the state. So, the Authority appreciates the input and recommendations from the Bureau of State Audits, and agrees with its recommendations.

We believe the audit process has identified areas where the Authority can improve its administrative processes and project oversight. We note that many of the findings in your draft audit are similar to those outlined earlier by the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO). As a result, in many instances the Authority has already taken action to address issues raised in your report.”

The statement also disclosed the Authority’s disappointment with some of the “aggressive” language the auditor used in her report, saying the report’s title does not reflect the audit’s findings.