At the core of the failure of the California High speed rail project is costly and largely incompetent consultants:
When California shifted its bullet train plan into high gear in 2008, it had just 10 employees to manage and oversee design of the largest public construction project in state history.
Consultants assured the state there was little reason to hire hundreds or thousands of in-house engineers and rail experts, because the consultants could handle the heavy work themselves and save California money. It would take them only 12 years to bore under mountains, bridge rivers and build 520 miles of rail bed — all at a cost of just $33 billion.
State officials followed that advice, and for the next several years, development of the nation’s first high-speed rail line was overseen by a minuscule government staff.
Now, more than a decade later, that decision has proved to be a foundational error in the project’s execution — a miscalculation that has resulted in the California High-Speed Rail Authority being overly reliant on a network of high-cost consultants who have consistently underestimated the difficulty of the task.
But significant portions of this work have been flawed or mismanaged, according to records reviewed by The Times and interviews with dozens of people involved in the project. Despite repeated warnings since 2010 about weaknesses in its staffing, the rail authority believed it could reduce overall costs by relying on consultants and avoiding a large permanent workforce. But that strategy has failed to keep project costs from soaring. Ten years after voters approved it, the project is $44 billion over budget and 13 years behind schedule.
A reckoning may be coming very soon, however.
Gov. Gavin Newsom recently told The Times that he would be taking aim at the consultants when the rail authority sends a major project update to the Legislature on May 1, including a detailed plan on building a partial operating system from Bakersfield to Merced for $16 billion to $18 billion.
“I’m getting rid of a lot of consultants,” Newsom said. “How did we get away with this?”
But actually reducing the role of consultants will be problematic because they have become cemented into place.
The rail authority’s consultants are hardly household names, but they are politically powerful and made major contributions to support the 2008 political campaign for the bullet train bond. They have staffed their ranks with former high-level bureaucrats, and their former executives have occupied key government posts.
To be sure, consultants are a routine part of many state construction projects. In California, however, high-speed rail is in a league of its own when it comes to reliance on outside staffing.
“If you depend on consultants to know what you are doing, then you are in real trouble,” said Bent Flyvbjerg, an Oxford University professor who has studied high-speed rail projects around the world. “A good balance is where the owner is not outsourcing all the knowledge. A bad balance guarantees a bad outcome.”
Brian Kelly, chief executive of the rail authority, acknowledges that “the balance needs to be remedied.”
Gee, you think?
It turns out that corruption is why we cannot make things in the United States anymore.