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What do high school dropouts, convicted felons and union apprentices have in  common?

They’re all “disadvantaged” workers who — alongside veterans, former foster  children and single parents — must account for at least 10 percent of the labor  force behind California’s $68 billion high-speed rail project. By 2029, the  state’s High-Speed Rail Authority hopes to send commuters hurtling at 200 mph  between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The 800-mile system with up to 24  stations will eventually extend to Sacramento and San Diego, but some critics —  and even former proponents of the megaproject — are now questioning its  viability.

Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow at Cato Institute, a Washington-based think  tank, said his biggest concern is not the unconventional workforce demand, but  that the electrically-powered train system is really a "political project" aimed  at fattening the wallets of well-connected unions, contractors, engineers and  associated firms.

"There's a lot of money to be made out of building this and the whole goal of  high-speed rail is to make that money, to transfer money from taxpayers into the  pockets of selected supporters of the Obama administration," O'Toole told  FoxNews.com. "It always comes back to politics."

 

Regarding the disadvantaged workers aspect of the project, O'Toole said he  found some value in educating less-fortunate workers, particularly if it's seen  as a Progress Administration-type project, or one primarily aimed at stimulating  the economy.

"On the other hand, is it really going to get them jobs in the future when  the high-speed rail project is done? It's probably not going to be that valuable  for them," he continued.

But oversight of the massive project will be its biggest hurdle, O'Toole  claims, rather than vetting the workers who will build it.

"Nobody's ever spent this much money on one project before, and it's  questionable whether we can," he said. "There will be somebody riding it, but  does it justify the billions you're going to spend to get it?"

Quentin Kopp, the former chair of the state’s Senate transportation committee  who co-wrote legislation launching the project, recently filed a legal  declaration contained in a civil suit seeking to halt it, reportedly claiming  the system as currently planned violates the law underpinning $9.95 billion in  state funding approved by voters in 2008.

"They have just mangled this project," Kopp told the Los Angeles Times. "They  distorted it. We don't get a high-speed rail system. It is the great train  robbery."

In Kopp’s declaration, the former judge claims the plan approved last year by  transit officials violated several voter-imposed requirements, including that  construction occur in “usable segments” throughout California and that funding  to complete each segment be secured prior to the start of shovels striking the  ground.

"They have just mangled this project."

- Quentin Kopp, former chair of the state’s Senate transportation committee  who co-wrote legislation launching the project

But Kopp claims the current plan to build 130 miles of rail in the Central  Valley for $6 billion beginning this summer will not produce a usable segment.  The first feasible segment of service within the plan would connect Merced to  the San Fernando Valley at an estimated cost of $31 billion — funds that the  recession-weary state does not have, according to Kopp’s declaration.

Authority officials, in a statement to FoxNews.com, said the project is  "moving forward" as originally planned.

"We are moving forward with the high-speed rail program which was recommended  by the state's independent panel of experts, approved by the legislature and  previously supported by Mr. Kopp," the statement read.

Dan Richard, chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority, told the  Los Angeles Times that Kopp’s lawsuit is wrong, both factually and legally.  Deals to share sections of urban track with slower commuter rail systems and to  send massive investments to Southern California and Bay Area transit agencies  were crucial to securing statewide political support for the project, he  said.

"It is one thing to sit back and criticize, and it is another thing to build  something," Richard told the newspaper. "We have made tremendous progress."

Other critics of the project, meanwhile, have focused on a policy contained  in a request for proposals issued to contractors in December to reserve a  portion of the construction jobs for certain disadvantaged groups, including  those who have been convicted of a crime.

"There's another chapter in the high-speed fail saga, and I almost can't do  this one with a straight face,” Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee, said in a  recent video series in which he shares political frustrations. “What a social  engineering disaster this is going to be, and add to California's laughingstock  reputation."

Rather than hiring those “most in need,” Jones suggested putting to work  someone who is duly qualified for the job.

“California needs to stop trying to help those who don’t want to help  themselves and find those that really do want to work,” Jones said.

Despite those concerns, several powerful Democrats continue to back the plan,  including Gov. Jerry Brown, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and  President Obama. Voter support, however, has largely evaporated since 2008. A  recent statewide survey found that 54 percent of likely voters now oppose the  project.

“Californians’ continuing concern about the economy and the state and federal  budgets make planning for the future a difficult process,” said Mark Baldassare,  president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California.

California High-Speed Rail Authority officials, meanwhile, said that a  completed system will eliminate the need to spend more than $150 billion on  4,300 new lane-miles of highway, 115 additional gates at airports and four new  airport runways. The first phase of construction would directly employ roughly  3,500 people. All told, as many as 100,000 construction-related jobs would be  created during each year the system is built and would reduce dependence on  foreign oil by up to 12.7 million barrels per year.

In Fresno County, where unemployment hovers above 14 percent, the Fresno  Regional Workforce Investment Board (FRWIB) is reportedly fielding so many calls  from prospective workers that a rail-specific website is being prepared to help  screen applicants once construction begins.

"The question is, the task that we have, which I hope does not become a  herculean task, is that we have to be sure that the people we are going to refer  over are competitive," FRWIB Executive Director Blake Konczal told the  Sacramento Bee. "The contractors don't have to hire anybody if they're not  qualified, so our job is to make sure that the local people that we refer over  are screened, that they receive adequate training and that they're ready to  go."

Read more:  http://www.foxnews.com/us/2013/03/27/california-controversial-6b-rail-project-must-employ-disadvantaged-workers/#ixzz2OqYVs53v