Poised to break ground on the nation's first bullet train this summer, the California High-Speed Rail Authority is riding high on a report from a congressional watchdog that found its ridership and revenue forecasts "reasonable" even while pointing out its cost estimates could be improved and its funding remains uncertain.
Several critics of the project weren't swayed by the audit conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, however, and vowed to keep up their opposition.
In the report released Friday, the GAO, an independent and nonpartisan agency that works for Congress, found the authority's ridership and revenue forecasts "reasonable for current purposes. "
It also said the authority's cost estimates for the project "substantially met the criteria" for accuracy, but noted additional information should have been provided to make the numbers more credible, comprehensive and well documented.
"By not following all best practices (for cost estimates), there is increased risk of such things as cost overruns, missed deadlines, and unmet performance targets," the GAO said.
The authority's CEO, Jeff Morales, called the audit "an important validation from a highly respected government watchdog. "
Authority board chairman, Dan Richard, said it "gives us even greater confidence to go forward." He added the concerns raised in the audit would be addressed.
"This is a very good, very strong, report card," Richard said. "It's not straight A's, but we will aspire to improve in the areas where the GAO tells us we can do much better. "
The authority is tasked with building a bullet train "" current price tag: $68.4 billion "" that would initially run 520 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles/Anaheim via the Central Valley, and later reach Sacramento and San Diego.
Running at speeds of up to 220 miles per hour, it could allow passengers to travel up and down the state in just two-and-a-half hours.
The authority's latest business plan forecasts 16 million to almost 27 million passengers every year, and annual revenues of from $1 billion to $1.8 billion in 2030.
For now, however, funding is available for only the first segment of the route, stretching across an agricultural region from Madera to Bakersfield. Groundbreaking is scheduled for this summer.
Farmers in Madera and Merced filed one of the many lawsuits intended to block, or at least delay, construction. They are questioning environmental studies on the project, and a hearing is set for April 19.
Amanda Carvajal, executive director of the Merced Farm Bureau, said the GAO's findings about revenue and ridership do not address their concerns.
"Everyone talks about numbers but there are farmers who are going to lose their property for a project that doesn't have the full funding it needs to become reality," she said.
"What are farmers going to do when a route cuts through the middle of their property? They'll have to pay a lot more to get to the other side, if they can even keep the property," she she. "Also, this is going to be a sprawl-inducing project, and land is precious to us. "
Adrian Moore, vice president of policy at the Reason Foundation, an L.A.-based libertarian think tank, said the GAO's findings won't stop him from opposing the bullet train.
"The GAO looked at the 'best practices' in the industry and affirmed the authority used it," he said. "But the complaint has always been the best practices in the industry always overestimate ridership and underestimate cost. "
"We're still left with a project that doesn't pass the common sense test," Moore said. "The authority has less than a sixth of the money it needs to build the thing and remains highly reliant on the federal government, which has been saying 'no' to more funding. "
The GAO report pointed out the project's funding "faces uncertainty" and remains "one of the biggest challenges to completing this project. "
Richard acknowledged the difficulty of counting on $38.7 billion in federal funding and $13.1 billion in private sector financing but said, "In my experience, no transportation project anywhere knows where all of its funding is coming from. "
"We do have funding for the first stage; a plan to get funding for the next stage, which could get us as far as Palmdale; and we're already thinking of how we'll get funding to build all the way down to L.A.," he said. "We feel confident moving forward because we are building this project a piece at a time. " ___