Business & Economy

Lawmakers back audit of California bullet train

This Dec. 6, 2017 file photo shows one of the elevated sections of the high-speed rail under construction in Fresno, Calif. A bipartisan team of lawmakers are seeking a formal audit of California's high-speed rail project following a nearly $3 billion jump in costs. Democratic Sen. Jim Beall and Republican Assemblyman Jim Patterson will make their pitch for the audit Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018, to a joint committee that will choose whether to authorize it.
This Dec. 6, 2017 file photo shows one of the elevated sections of the high-speed rail under construction in Fresno, Calif. A bipartisan team of lawmakers are seeking a formal audit of California's high-speed rail project following a nearly $3 billion jump in costs. Democratic Sen. Jim Beall and Republican Assemblyman Jim Patterson will make their pitch for the audit Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018, to a joint committee that will choose whether to authorize it.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

California's high-speed rail project will face fresh scrutiny from the state auditor.

A legislative panel approved an audit of the bullet train project Tuesday with bipartisan support. State auditor Elaine Howle says it will take her team six to nine months to complete the audit.

Howle has been tasked with examining the California High-Speed Rail Authority's process for containing costs and staying on its timeline, as well as the project's environmental and economic impacts.

The audit request comes after a $3 billion jump in costs for a Central Valley segment that's partly under construction.

Democratic Sen. Jim Beall of San Jose and Republican Assemblyman Jim Patterson of Fresno made their pitch for the audit Tuesday to a joint committee.

"As a vital partner in the delivery of the high-speed rail system, it is incumbent upon us as a legislative body to provide strong oversight and guidance to ensure that the project is on an effective path toward successful completion," the lawmakers wrote in their audit request.

The request comes as the authority brings on a new chief executive officer, Brian Kelly, most recently the head of California's state transportation agency. The lawmakers said an audit would help ensure "effective management" of the project.

"Without question, the high-speed rail program is the largest, most complex and, in some ways, most far-reaching public infrastructure project in the nation," they wrote.

Lawmakers say they hope to cut through the political noise surrounding the project and get a better grip on the facts.

California's plan to build high-speed rail from Los Angeles to San Francisco is now estimated to cost more than $65 billion, up substantially from a decade ago.

A segment from San Francisco to Bakersfield is slated to be open by 2025, with the tracks to Los Angeles open by 2029, but that timeline could face delays.

Despite those challenges, Gov. Jerry Brown forcefully defended the project last week in his State of the State address. It would be the nation's first high-speed train if completed. He noted the project has created 1,500 construction jobs in the Central Valley.

The High-Speed Rail Authority is also preparing to release its biennial business plan. It's typically due by May 1, but the board requested a month-long extension, prompting criticism from Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. Lawmakers must pass a budget by June 15, and the rail project is paid for in part through revenue from the cap-and-trade program.

This story has been updated.