State senators grilled officials who oversee California's $68 billion high-speed rail project during a hearing Tuesday intended to investigate whether the project has sufficient staff and resources to actually build the nation's first bullet train.
Lawmakers billed the hearing as an opportunity to safeguard the public's interest as they evaluate whether the agency overseeing the project has addressed a series of organizational problems.
State Auditor Elaine Howle last year criticized the California High-Speed Rail Authority's processes for monitoring the performance and accountability of its contractors as "inadequate" saying they lacked oversight and that the agency's contractors and subcontractors "outnumber its employees by about 25 to one."
Howle told a joint hearing of the Senate Transportation and Housing and the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review committees that the rail authority has fully implemented 17 of its 23 recommendations and made progress on the others. That includes hiring senior-level staff and strengthening its policies and procedures for staff.
"You've got to make sure that your staff follow them, that there's proper oversight of the authority, but we think they've put some good structure in place," she testified. "We just need to see that those are carried out."
Contractors submitted bids last month to design and build the first 30-mile stretch of track for the bullet train, a section that is expected to cost $1.8 billion. The first full segment of the system will run from Madera to Bakersfield, but the project eventually is supposed to link northern and southern California with trains traveling up to 220 mph.
Gov. Jerry Brown and most other Democratic lawmakers support the project, which would be the nation's first high-speed rail system. But the project still faces intense criticism and a series of lawsuits.
Among the biggest concerns is how the state will fully pay for the project. Lawmakers approved the first phase of the planned 800-mile line last summer, allowing the state to begin selling $2.6 billion in voter-approved bonds for construction of the first 130-mile stretch.
That approval also allowed the state to tap $3.2 billion from the federal government, but it's still not known where the rest of the money will come from. The state's business plan calls for some backing from private investors and for a private operator to run the system without a state subsidy.
High-speed rail board Chairman Dan Richard said he still doesn't know the answer, but officials believe the financing will come through from a variety of sources. He said he remains confident that private investors will step up to service and operate the trains, sell tickets and perform other functions once the initial segment is built.
"At this point we don't have answers for you, but we do have a mindset," he said. "It'll be a series of 10 percent solutions; it won't be a silver bullet."
Richard said officials also have committed that each segment will be built only as the money is available and will have "independent utility," meaning they will be able to operate even if future extensions are never built.
The state Legislative Analyst's Office, an independent peer review group and others were also expected to testify.