Judicial Watch Sues Obama Department of Transportation for Records Concerning California’s ‘Train to Nowhere’
Obama Administration Pledges $3.3 billion in funding for California High-Speed Rail Project Labeled an “Immense Financial Risk” by an Independent Audit
(Washington, DC) – Judicial Watch, the public interest group that investigates and prosecutes government corruption, announced today that it filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit on February 29, 2012, against the Obama Department of Transportation (DOT) to obtain records concerning the construction of the proposed California High-Speed Rail (Judicial Watch v. U.S. Department of Transportation (No. 12-324)). The Obama administration has pledged $3.3 billion in federal funds to construct the first leg of the project, which is planned for California’s sparsely populated Central Valley. An independent audit recently concluded that the project is an “immense financial risk.”
Judicial Watch filed its original FOIA request on January 4, 2012, with the Federal Railroad Administration (“FRA”), a component of DOT, seeking access to the following public records:
All documents, communications and correspondence (including electronic email) transmitted between the Federal Railroad Administration and the California High Speed Rail Authority addressing or relating to the route alternatives under consideration for the proposed California High Speed Rail within Madera County and Merced County, California.
The FRA acknowledged receipt of Plaintiff’s request by letter dated January 5, 2012, and was required by law to respond by February 3, 2012. However, as of the date of Judicial Watch’s lawsuit, the FRA has neither provided documents nor any indication why the documents sought by Judicial Watch should be withheld. The agency has also failed to indicate when a response is forthcoming.
Construction of the California High-Speed Rail is estimated to cost anywhere from $45 billion to $117 billion. In 2008, California voters passed a referendum authorizing nearly $10 billion in bonds to seed the project. At that time, construction costs were estimated to be much lower. The Obama administration also announced that it would allocate $3.3 billion in federal stimulus and transportation funds to aid in the construction of the first 130-mile stretch of the rail with two conditions. First, construction must begin by September 2012. And second, the first segment of the rail must be constructed in California’s sparsely populated Central Valley, an area hit hard by the failing economy.
However, from the start, the project has been beset with delays and controversy due to the ballooning projected costs of constructing and operating the rail. On January 3, 2012, a Peer Review Group, established by the 2008 California referendum authorizing the initial seed funding, issued a report criticizing the fiscal solvency of the project and refused to recommend authorizing the legislature to approve the appropriation of the bond proceeds: “[M]oving ahead . . . without credible sources of adequate funding, without a definitive business model, without a strategy to maximize the independent utility and value to the State, and without the appropriate management resources, represents an immense financial risk on the part of the State of California.”
Officials now say construction on the project will not start until 2013. However, as reported by the Fresno Bee, this delay “isn’t expected to endanger the [federal] funds.” California taxpayers are now concerned that if the project commences with the assistance of the Obama administration’s funding, but without assurances of future funding, the end result would be an incomplete “train to nowhere.”
Affected communities and residents in California have challenged the controversial project in court, including whether the U.S. and California laws related to the project’s funding are being violated.
“The California ‘train to nowhere’ is a multi-billion stimulus boondoggle. The residents of the Central Valley could pay an especially high price for this wasteful project, as the first segment will go right through their backyards and farmland. Instead of stonewalling the release of records, the Obama administration should obey FOIA law so that taxpayers can assess this massive expenditure of taxpayer money for themselves. The California High-Speed Rail project makes the Solyndra scandal seem like small potatoes,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton.