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Will L.A. Times’ Irresponsible Coverage of High Speed Rail Doom the Project?

A rendering of the project. Image: CaHSRA

On Monday, the Los Angeles Times published a bombshell article, outlining the details of a "confidential Federal Railroad Administration risk analysis," in an attack on the competence and ethics of the California High Speed Rail Authority. Reporter Ralph Vartabedian claims the report shows cost overruns and delays, although the Times does not provide readers a chance to read the report for themselves.

The California High Speed Rail Authority is given little space in the story to defend itself. Much more is given to critics who have been seeking to kill the project for years.

Jerry Brown has shown unwavering support for the High Speed Rail Project. But if the federal government turns its back, will that support be enough? Photo: NPR
Jerry Brown has shown unwavering support for the High Speed Rail Project. But if the federal government turns its back, will that support be enough? Photo: NPR

The story went viral with conservative news websites that are read by decision makers in Washington, D.C. Breitbart, the news website that was once edited by incoming senior adviser to President-Elect Donald Trump, summarized the article with the headline "CA High-Speed Rail: Over Budget, Behind Schedule." Even less-reputable website PJ Media took a harder swing in "Train Wreck: California High-Speed Rail in Worse Shape Than Anyone Thought" charging corruption and incompetence at the highest levels.

With today's report at The Hill that the administration plans massive cuts to the Department of Transportation for unnamed programs, the timing of the piece couldn't have come at a worse time for the High Speed Rail Authority. In a critique of the article at the pro-High Speed Rail website CAHSR Blog, Robert Cruickshank writes. "I will bet money that the Trump FRA finds a way to claim that the Authority missed this deadline and must repay that $220 million. I would not be surprised if they also make a play to try and clawback much more of that stimulus money, though I doubt it can go very far.

Of all the obstacles I described above that the Authority has weathered, they may be about to encounter the largest one yet: Donald Trump."

Of course, if the article is true, that there are cost over-runs and major delays and the FRA did publish a secret report slamming the project, the Authority deserves whatever is coming next.

And that's where things start to fall apart. The Times' critique isn't a fair one, using partial truths to create doubt. While it is factually true to state that the report is "confidential," Vartabedian uses the term without providing any context, leaving readers to imagine why the report's findings would be withheld from the public.

First, the FRA conducts risk assessments of every project that receives federal funding. In response to an email asking why the FRA completed this study, Deputy Director of Public Affairs Marc Willis responded somewhat cheekily, "Risk analysis is a standard oversight tool used on major capital projects—not just California."

So why is the report marked "confidential?" Simply put, because the FRA and its local and regional partners want to be able to have a frank conversation about the status of the project without fear of the report being misunderstood by political opponents and the local press. The High Speed Rail Authority, in its response to the article in the legislature, outlines many complaints with the article, but seems especially exasperated about the characterization of the report.

"Risk analysis is an ongoing iterative process; factors are discussed, assessed for their potential impact, and determinations are made as to whether they are applicable and to what degree," the letter states. "It was marked deliberative because it is just that - part of that ongoing work among staff to determine what risks might be applicable and how to manage them."

So how about the damning critique Vartabedian outlines from the routine deliberative report draft? Turns out their are plenty of holes in the report as well.

First claim : The project could cost $3.6 billion more than the budget announced to the public. $6.4 billion announced to $10 billion.

The key word here is could. There are a lot of things that could increase the budget of the project. But at the moment, the budget for the project is $7.8 billion, not $6.4 billion. Why is that number higher than the $6.4 billion estimate? $900 million of the $1.4 billion difference is contingency funds should other parts of the project go over budget.

Currently, only the route through the Central Valley is under construction. Construction should be completed by 2025.
Currently, only the route through the Central Valley is under construction. Construction should be completed by 2025.

Second claim : The California High-Speed Rail Authority originally anticipated completing the Central Valley track by this year, but the federal risk analysis estimates that that won’t happen until 2024, placing the project seven years behind schedule.

This is true, but hardly news. The route for the Merced to Bakersfield wasn't approved by the Board until last October. In fact, when the plan for the Initial Operating Segment was approved last year, the estimate for the opening date was 2025.

Third claim : The Federal Railroad Administration is tracking the project because it has extended $3.5 billion in two grants to help build the Central Valley segment. The administration has an obligation to ensure that the state complies with the terms, including a requirement that the state has the funding to match the federal grants. 

This is true. This routine report is put together because the state received a federal grant. And good news, the Authority is on track to meet its goal, including the matching funds and the requirement that all funds be spent in the grant timeline. A statement released by the FRA, and quoted in the CAHSR article, clearly states, "Is California on track to spend the Recovery Act Funds at this moment? Yes. Will it? With continued focus and hard work, yes."

Fourth claim : Staff morale is low.

I wonder why that is? Probably because the project is a political hot potato and is often pilloried in the local press, including the nation's fourth largest newspaper?

Vartabedian clearly has an ax to grind with the Authority. Roger Rudick, now editor of Streetsblog SF, wrote a scathing takedown of his coverage in 2014. Perhaps that explains the many pieces of good news left out of his article, news that is outlined in the Authority's response. Or maybe it explains why much of the background for Vartabedian's article is from anonymous sources, without any context for who is providing the information and why anonymity was granted.

But the sad reality is that even though the Times' article is sloppy and unprofessional, it could have negative consequences for the California High Speed Rail project. A hilariously terrible article by the Reason Foundation on the then newly-opened Phase I of the Expo Line, lamented that ridership for the completed Expo Line hadn't reached it's 30-year ridership projections--in its second week of being half-open. That terrible article was cited in private meetings between transit advocates and capitol hill staff about rail funding in Southern California.***

Let's hope Vartabedian's article has even less impact than Reason's. But in these uncertain times, it seems likely High Speed Rail will remain a partisan issue.

*** - Anonymity was granted because said activist doesn't want to burn bridges in Washington, D.C. Even though these meetings took place five years ago.

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