High-speed spending for rail project raises eyebrows

FRESNO, Calif. -- California is about to build the largest public-works project in the state's history: a system of high-speed, electric passenger trains. And even before a spade of dirt is turned, perhaps late next year, the state will have spent about $630 million.

What does California have to show for it?

Thousands of pages of strategies, studies and plans -- and a chorus of concern over the rail authority's budget management and its ability to monitor an army of consultants.

The Fresno Bee, as part of a project by California Watch, has examined the California High-Speed Rail Authority's 15-year budget history and current consulting contracts. By far, the largest chunks of cash have been paid to consultants and contractors hired by the authority, which has only a small in-house administrative staff.

Over the past two years, however, state oversight agencies repeatedly have cited problems -- contract payments made without verifying that work actually was performed; payments for services or equipment not covered in consulting contracts; and a lack of policies and procedures to review invoices and payments.

With spending set to leap from millions of dollars per year in planning to billions per year once construction begins, those worries are now magnified.

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