Since California voters approved $9.95 billion in bond seed money for a $43 billion statewide high-speed rail network in 2008, the project has produced an unending flow of bad news. It’s now seven years behind schedule and has ballooned in price to at least $64 billion while shrinking in scale. Earlier this month, a project consultant said the initial segment in the Central Valley was likely to cost $10.8 billion — 77 percent higher than the original $6 billion estimate.
Yet for years, the bullet train has been a partisan issue in the Capitol, with Democrats from Gov. Jerry Brown on down defending the project against Republicans’ criticism. This doesn’t make sense. If a massive public works project is going awry, party affiliation shouldn’t dictate a lawmaker’s response.
Thankfully, this week, that dynamic abruptly changed. While Brown used his State of the State speech to again defend the project, state Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, co-authored a letter with Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, with a simple request: that the Joint Legislative Audit Committee direct state Auditor Elaine Howle to audit the bullet train.
While past requests have been rejected on party lines, the audit committee should promptly approve this one so Howle could conceivably finish the audit before June’s primary election. That’s when voters will take up a measure requiring the Legislature to have a two-thirds majority vote in 2024 on whether to stop funding the bullet train with revenue from cap-and-trade auctions of pollution rights. Requiring such a vote is crucial because it would force bullet-train accountability on lawmakers — accountability they have until now ducked. A new audit by Howle is crucial, too. It’s been a no-brainer for years.