WASHINGTON — The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has launched a probe of the California High Speed Rail Authority, asking its board members to preserve all records related to the nearly $4 billion in federal funds approved that, along with a proposed $2.7 billion bond issue, would finance the bullet train along the California coast.
The letters from committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., asked the board members to not only maintain all records dating back to 2009, but to also contact former contractors and authority employees and make a list of people available to the committee.
Issa indicated concern with the project's use of federal funds due to widely fluctuating cost estimates and allegations from a watchdog group that conflicts of interest have existed on the CHSRA's board of directors.
The oversight committee has no legislative authority but oversees the District of Columbia, the government procurement process, federal personnel systems, the Postal Service, and virtually any other use of federal money or resources.
"Of particular interest to the committee is how CHSRA has already spent or plans to spend the nearly $4 billion in federal taxpayer money already authorized for its high-speed rail project," Issa wrote in the letter.
The project is designed to be a part of a larger network connecting the Golden State's major northern cities in the Bay Area to the southern population center of the Los Angeles Basin. Under the latest business plan, the first operating section of the rail line would link the Central Valley to Los Angeles in 10 years. This 255-mile trip would take fewer than 90 minutes, according to CHSRA.
But the proposal has drawn the ire of leading House Republicans, including Issa and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman John Mica, R-Fla. Mica has repeatedly expressed skepticism about the California project, the costs of which ballooned to $98 billion from $45 billion before a revised business plan released April 2 cut them back down to $68 billion.
Even before the controversy over costs, a Palo Alto-based watchdog group called Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design in September 2010 accused two CHSRA board members of holding offices conflicting with those interests in possible violation of California law. Curt Pringle, then the mayor of Anaheim, and Richard Katz, a board member of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority — neither of whom remain on the CHSRA board — were in violation of a state law forbidding public officials from simultaneously serving on a board or commission that might conflict with their public duties, the group claimed.
In his letter, Issa expressed concern that federal money was used during the tenure of those men and said that it "contributed to a pattern of weak oversight and mismanagement of the project."
The project has retained some powerful backers, including U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and California Gov. Jerry Brown. Issa acknowledged the "high-profile praise" that California high-speed rail has earned from the Obama administration, but dismissed the "political interests" involved.
"California high-speed rail was sold to voters as a grand vision for tomorrow, but in practice appears to be no different than countless other pork-barrel projects," Issa said Tuesday. "Before more taxpayer money is sent to the rail authority, questions must be answered about mismanagement, conflicts of interest, route selection, ridership and other risks."
The new business plan with the revised cost for the project still must be approved by the authority's board, which meets Thursday. The bonds must be authorized by the state Legislature.