U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein this week became the latest California figure to suggest that the all-but-dead high-speed rail project be salvaged by turning it over to the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).
It's a worthy idea.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority, which oversees the project, has had well-documented problems -- with conflicts of interest, expensive consulting contracts, unreliable cost estimates, a lack of board expertise in trains, and poorly drafted business plans.
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What's more, the authority's independence from the state has made it less than accountable to state government -- and pushed it to focus narrowly on the project without thinking clearly enough about the state's broader needs, including fiscal needs.
Caltrans, in contrast, has expertise and a long history of managing big projections and negotiating big contracts.
It's a full state department and should have no problem integrating a high-speed rail system with the state's overall transportation system.
The non-partisan Legislative Analyst's Office made similar points in a report last year. "We recommend that the Legislature remove decision-making authority over the high-speed rail project from the HSRA board to ensure that the state's overall interests, including state fiscal concerns, are fully taken into account as the project is developed."
The counter-arguments to a Caltrans takeover are honest. The state bureaucracy will slow down, cost up, and perhaps strange this proposal. A separate high-speed rail authority is necessary because the voters were promised such a power -- and because a project this difficult can't be built within the existing system (or it would have been built already).
Of course, the counter to the counter is just as obvious. The high-speed rail is a zombie. It would cost $100 billion, but the authority has not come up with that kind of money. Its public support is evaporating.
To reverse that momentum, a big change is essential.
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