California High Speed Rail Sustainability Audit
Conceived as the nation’s first bullet train, the California high-speed rail system promised to transform how Californians travel across the State. However, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (Authority) - the state agency responsible for planning, building, and operating the system - had faced serious challenges. As requested by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, the California State Auditor conducted an audit of the Authority’s contracting and cost control practices which concluded that the Authority’s flawed decision making regarding the start of high-speed rail system construction in the Central Valley and its ongoing poor contract management for a wide range of high-value contracts had contributed to billions of dollars in cost overruns for completing the system. (source: California State Auditor)
In May 2018, KERAMIDA was contracted by the California State Auditor’s Office to provide expertise on sustainability planning and policy development for infrastructure projects in support of the State Auditor’s audit of the efficiency and efficacy of the policies and practices employed by the California High Speed Rail Authority, which was at that time constructing the largest infrastructure project in the U.S.
KERAMIDA completed the following tasks:
Reviewed the Authority’s sustainability policy and assessed the reasonableness and comprehensiveness of the policy. KERAMIDA evaluated the extent to which the policy is likely to help ensure the Authority designs, builds, and operates its high-speed rail system in a sustainable manner. KERAMIDA recommended ways the policy could be strengthened to further the Authority’s goal of constructing and operating the system sustainably.
Reviewed best practices for monitoring sustainable construction and compared those practices to the Authority’s plans and actions. KERAMIDA considered the metrics the Authority is currently collecting and reviewing to monitor compliance with its sustainability policy and determine whether those metrics are the most appropriate option for measuring each objective of the policy. Where the Authority’s current metrics are insufficient, KERAMIDA recommended more appropriate metrics.
Assessed the Authority’s process for developing thresholds and targets for its sustainability metrics. KERAMIDA evaluated whether the Authority made sufficient progress toward setting baselines for the project.
Provided ongoing support to the Auditor’s office as they provided feedback from the audit to the CHSRA, including ways it could improve its monitoring and measurement of environmental impacts.
Key findings of KERAMIDA’s work include:
The Authority has not sufficiently identified key objectives in its sustainability policy to ensure that its active construction projects follow sustainable practices.
Although the Authority appropriately estimated the environmental impacts of its current construction before beginning work, it has not comprehensively evaluated its performance against those estimates.
The Authority’s sustainability policy does not sufficiently distinguish between construction of the system—which has a significant impact on the State’s environment—and its eventual operation.
The Authority has not identified construction‑related objectives for all its priorities even though the priorities themselves have relevance during the construction stage. For example, although the policy lists conservation of nonrenewable energy as a priority, the related objectives pertain only to the system’s operations.
The Authority’s implementation plan—which details how it will assess compliance with the policy—is not always specific about what the Authority should measure during construction to determine success.
The implementation plan does not include measurable, process-focused metrics related to construction for many of the objectives. For example, the plan states that the Authority will monitor the degree to which the system’s eventual operation improves air quality by tracking the number of emergency room visits for asthma sufferers; however, the plan does not include a metric to measure the degree to which the construction affects current air quality.
The Authority has not comprehensively evaluated the sustainability performance of the currently active construction projects. Neglecting to monitor all pertinent aspects of performance continuously throughout construction could result in the individual construction projects falling short of their goals; if it reviews progress only after it completes a specific project, the Authority will have missed any opportunity to intervene to improve sustainability outcomes.
The California State Auditor’s Office published their audit report in November 2018, as requested by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, located here https://www.bsa.ca.gov/pdfs/reports/2018-108.pdf