The Consultants Behind the CA High-Speed Rail Debacle

The state's high-speed rail project is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. A major problem is that consultants have been running the show from the start, say critics.

2 minute read

May 6, 2019, 8:00 AM PDT

By Camille Fink

High Speed Rail California

California High-Speed Rail Authority / Wikimedia Commons

Ralph Vartabedian reports on the troubled state of California’s high-speed rail project and the problematic role of consultants. The project started in 2008 with a staff of just 10 state employees, and it has depended on consultants ever since:

Consultants assured the state there was little reason to hire hundreds or thousands of in-house engineers and rail experts, because the consultants could handle the heavy work themselves and save California money. It would take them only 12 years to bore under mountains, bridge rivers and build 520 miles of rail bed — all at a cost of just $33 billion.

The result of turning over the reins to consultants has been devastating, writes Vartabedian. "Ten years after voters approved it, the project is $44 billion over budget and 13 years behind schedule."

He describes a Kafkaesque organizational structure where government employees report to consultants and consultants manage other consultants. Projections have also been wildly off base, and conflicts of interest abound, including large contributions from engineering and construction firms to the campaign for the bond that has funded the project.

In a follow-up article, Vartabedian reports that the California High-Speed Rail Authority just delivered a report to the state legislature describing the many issues plaguing the project:

The report contains some sobering caveats that legislators and state leaders will have to consider: It will cost a stunning $20.4 billion to complete just a 171-mile segment between Merced and Bakersfield, a commitment of an additional $15 billion over what has been spent to date for paper studies, environmental reports and construction.

Governor Gavin Newsom has plans to move oversight and management responsibilities to a state staff, which will replace consultants. The authority says it can get the project back on track, even though the Central Valley part of the project faces major fiscal challenges and links to Southern California or the San Francisco Bay Area appear financially unfeasible.

Sunday, May 26, 2019 in Los Angeles Times

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