Almanac

News - May 19, 2010

Simitian's patience running out on high-speed rail

by Gennady Sheyner

State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who has consistently expressed support for "high-speed rail done right," warned last week he is running out of patience with the controversial project and may withdraw his support unless there are some high-speed changes.

Sen. Simitian expressed his frustration about the $43 billion project during a May 11 informational hearing on the project, which has generated intense opposition in local communities.

The hearing, held in Sacramento, focused on a recent report by the State Auditor's Office that identified a myriad of flaws in the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the agency charged with building the 800-mile rail line's initial phase between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Sen. Simitian said the audit underscored for him that the complaints from the Peninsula are substantive issues, not isolated concerns.

The audit concluded that the rail project has suffered from poor planning, inadequate risk assessment, and a flawed business plan — mistakes that could result in major delays, cost overruns, or even an incomplete system.

"At some point, folks need to come to grips with the fact that this isn't just the case of isolated concerns or misguided complaints or rampant NIMBY-ism," he said. "They are real and legitimate concerns and they need to be addressed sooner rather than later."

"We are getting very close to a point where if there's no significant changes and improvements in the way business is done, I will no longer be able to call myself a supporter of 'high-speed-rail done right,'" Sen. Simitian added. "Once members start to back away in such a way, I think it puts the project in great jeopardy."

The Senate committee, which also includes state senators Alan Lowenthal and Bob Huff, gave the authority 60 days to bring back more details about the rail authority's financial contracts. The three senators were troubled by the auditor's findings that the authority frequently approved payments to contractors without verifying that the work was completed.

The authority's program manager, Parsons Brinckerhoff, is charged with providing monthly reports to the agency's board of directors. The auditor's office found that many of these reports contained erroneous information.

"We saw that those monthly progress reports were inaccurate and that inconsistent information was being sent to the authority," State Auditor Elaine Howle told the committee.

Ms. Howle said her office reviewed 22 invoices and found that 20 had problems of some sort. "When you sample 22 invoices and you have concerns about 20, that's huge," she told the committee.

All three senators voiced disappointment about the facts uncovered by the state auditor. Sen. Huff, the lone Republican in the trio, said if the rail authority doesn't provide good answers in 60 days, the agency would see his tone change as he becomes more adversarial to the project.

Sen. Lowenthal said he will continue to push the authority for more information before releasing funds for the voter-approved project. "The litany of poor management practices identified by the audit is actually astounding."

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