Senators push for rail oversight, outreach

Residents and officials lobby Sacramento for more transparency, community involvement

Local officials and residents aren't alone in their concern about a "lack of transparency" and oversight in the state's quest to build a $40 billion high-speed rail system.

A state Senate subcommittee Thursday expressed concerns about the structure and business plan of the California High Speed Rail Authority -- the agency charged with building the $40 billion rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The Senate's budget subcommittee, which includes senators Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), John J. Benoit (R-Bermuda Dunes) and Alan S. Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), heard a request from the rail agency for about $130 million in bond funding.

Simitian said the community's message was "loud and clear." The subcommittee agreed to hold off on authorizing the funds and urged rail-authority officials to expand their outreach efforts.

The senators heard from about 30 concerned Peninsula residents who made a morning trek to Sacramento to lobby for more oversight and transparency.

"What we really asked for is for them to change the structure of who is running this," Palo Alto Vice Mayor Jack Morton, one of the speakers, said.

"It's quite clear that the high-speed rail staff is insensitive to the community and has no ability to be responsible for the funds," he said.

Simitian said the nature of the rail authority has changed over the past few months from a small study group advocating a high-speed rail line to an organization actually building the line. Now is the time to consider changes that would bring more oversight and more community outreach to the process, he said.

"We deferred action in part to ensure that before the funds are authorized for the coming year that we see a stepped-up program for outreach and oversight," Simitian told the Weekly.

The Thursday hearing came about six weeks after the state Legislative Analyst's Office released its review of the rail agency's business plan for the proposed 300-mile line and found many details missing.

The March 17 analyst report said the authority's business plan failed to disclose expected service levels, assumed train capacity, ways in which funds would be secured, the schedule for completing design and environmental clearance and other critically important factors.

The analyst report said the structure of the rail agency is unusual in that contractors are providing both the technical work and the oversight. Typically, state employees are in charge of managing large infrastructure projects, not contractors.

"The philosophy of the (rail authority) has been that it should avoid developing a large permanent organizational staff because the project is a one-time endeavor, requires highly specialized skills, and will require limited on-going support," the report stated.

"On the basis of this approach to project management, the (authority) is relying upon outside consultants to provide both technical and managerial services."

The report also mentioned a letter that Quentin Kopp, chair of the rail authority's Board of Directors, sent to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, listing elements of the high-speed rail project that could qualify for federal funding.

The list of projects – which has since been revised -- was not discussed with stakeholders in the area, the analysts' report states. The rail authority's board plans to review and tentatively approve the list at its May 7 meeting.

"There has been no public review process for determining the list and there does not appear to have been a collaborative technical review process among the stakeholder agencies," the analyst report states.

"Because of the lack of a transparent, inclusive process for selecting projects, the reasons for including some ready-to-go projects and excluding others are unclear," it said.

California voters approved Proposition 1A last November, which provides $9.95 billion in bonds for the rail project.

But while many residents still support the concept, local residents and officials have grown worried in recent months about the project's potential impact on their neighborhoods.

Hundreds have attended community and council meetings to raise alarms about the potential of an elevated wall splitting the cities, and to express concerns about the possibility of having portions of their property's seized through eminent domain.

Palo Alto Councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto, who organized a coalition of Peninsula cities that meets weekly to discuss high-speed rail issues, said city officials are now discussing a variety of proposals they'd like Sacramento legislators to consider.

The coalition, which met Friday morning, wants the rail authority to use the "Context Sensitive Solutions" developed by the Federal Highway Administration in designing the new rail line. The method emphasizes stakeholder involvement and design elements that integrate the project with the surrounding communities.

Ms. Kishimoto said the coalition also plans to request that the rail authority conduct an economic analysis for the various design alternatives concurrently with its environmental review of the options.

"We don't want to go through all the environmental analysis only to find at the very end of the two-year process that the tunnel is not feasible," Ms. Kishimoto said.


Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on May 3, 2009 at 3:12 pm

Finally. After more than five years of trying to get this message out, it is finally being heard. For a very long time, it seemed as if we, Morris Brown, Mike Brady and myself, were the only ones who were saying that “the Emperor is wearing no clothes!” We have been abused and denigrated in endless ad hominem comments and emails from both the rail supporters and, would you believe it, our own allies. No matter. A sleeping giant – the people, citizens and residents of the Peninsula – is waking up. All the abusive comments in the world, directed at us, will fall on deaf ears. The truth is finally becoming available to everyone. As I have been saying all these years, this project is not about trains, high-speed or otherwise; it’s about the money. It’s about corrupt political interests seeking power, control and access to billions. For the first time, I am willing to acknowledge that there is hope.

Like this comment
Posted by Morris Brown
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on May 4, 2009 at 9:35 pm

The sub-committee meeting chaired by Senator Simitian on April 30th can be heard at:

Web Link

(The discussion on High Speed Rail starts at 1 hour and 40 minutes into that link)

For those who have really been following this project, it is truly amazing to hear Medhi Morshed, the executive director of the Authority, tell the committee that public comments made by members of the Authority's board do not necessarily represent a position of the Authority. Morshed is saying don't believe anything Kopp or Diridon tell you? WOW!!!

REALLY!!!! Well that comment didn't go over well with Senator Simitian who told Morshed to take back to the board, they should not make public comments which may only be personal beliefs, without making sure the public understands they are only personal comments. Simitian also said he would personally write the Authority's board on this issue.

Morshed also stated, the Authority shouldn't be held responsible for the campaign that resulted in passage of Prop 1A. Who else can be held responsible?

It is a good listen. Good comments from many members of the Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton communities and even San Jose.

Vice-mayor Morton and Mayor Heyward Robinson really had excellent lead off remarks.

morris brown

Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on May 6, 2009 at 10:58 am

This same article received 22 comments in the Palo Alto Online TownSquare. Why? Because more Palo Altonians give a damn about this project and the devastation it will bring to their and our respective cities.
In Menlo Park, you can count those actively concerned about this on both hands.

There are two, maybe three on the City Council who are paying attention and have a sense of the impact this project will generate. The Administration is, by and large, indifferent and may actually be supportive of whatever construction the rail authority intends for us. It will mean expanded staff and budget for them.

What if Paul Revere had made his famous ride and the citizenry told him to shut up? Who will all the Menlo Parkers blame when many streets get closed, the construction equipment ties up our traffic permanently for five years, when property values sink due to disclosure of a high rail barrier and four tracks, when the entire quality of life and the character of Menlo Park changes, for the worse, forever?

Fellow residents of Menlo Park, you are like Cleopatra, Queen of Denial.

Like this comment
Posted by cynic
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on May 6, 2009 at 11:44 am

And you, Martin, are our Cassandra. MP is culturally very different from PA. People here don't care. I truly think that only about a dozen people ever post on this board, most of us under a variety of handles because we aren't as brave as you are.

A lot of residents, even those within screaming distance of the tracks, still don't know about HSR. Amazing, huh? But at some point in the future they may become aware of the disaster that you, Morris, and a few prescient others managed to avert. Don't expect them to thank you, though.

Like this comment
Posted by Frank
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on May 6, 2009 at 1:49 pm

"In Menlo Park, you can count those actively concerned about this on both hands."

Martin, you're mistaken. I've met lots of people who are concerned about this. And many of them, including myself, hope that HSR does happen.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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