Simitian's patience running out on high-speed rail

State senator from Palo Alto says new audit of the rail project legitimizes Peninsula cities' concerns

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

Simitian, a former Palo Alto mayor and Santa Clara County supervisor, expressed his frustration about the $43 billion project during Tuesday's informational hearing on the project, which has generated intense opposition in his home town and at other Peninsula communities.

The Tuesday hearing 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.

Simitian said the audit, like previous reports from state agencies and watchdog groups, underscored to 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," Simitian 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,'" 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 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.

Howle said her office reviewed 22 invoices and found that 20 had problems of some sort. She said her office was very concerned by the authority's process for keeping track of invoices.

"When you sample 22 invoices and you have concerns about 20, that's huge," Howle told the committee. "Usually, you'd expect an error rate that's very small."

All three senators voiced disappointment about the facts uncovered by the state auditor. 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.

Lowenthal said he will continue to push the authority for more information before releasing funds for the voter-approved project.

"Anybody who has read this audit report cannot help but be disheartened by the authority's mismanagement, or at least some folks' mismanagement, of scarce public resources," Lowenthal said.

"The litany of poor management practices identified by the audit is actually astounding."

Simitian asked authority officials how much time they need to resolve a list of ongoing issues, including flaws in its business plan, inadequate community engagement and questions over the legality of its plan to guarantee revenues to investors in the rail system.

Carrie Pourvahidi, the interim executive director of the authority, said she will submit a report within two weeks setting out a feasible timeline.

"It feels like we have to drag this information and improvements out of the authority in painful increments, one after another after another," Simitian said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on May 13, 2010 at 2:01 pm

My patience ran out in 2003, seven years ago. It didn't pass "the smell test" then, and it certainly doesn't now.

All those people who love high-speed trains in general, and want a California high-speed train need to understand one thing, and one thing only:

This particular project is not about the train; it's about the money.

Why a railroad project? As Dillinger answered when asked why he robbed banks, "That's where the money is."

Like this comment
Posted by Gunther Steinberg
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on May 13, 2010 at 2:05 pm

The California High Speed Rail Authority seems to be a fiction. We have no high speed transit and they are spending money on it?
Sounds like their account system is like that of a person who never checks his bank statement. Anything goes. The contractor will look after the proper billing - in his favor. - Other people's money is always cheap.

Like this comment
Posted by Simitian the Chameleon
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on May 13, 2010 at 6:59 pm

Surely you've all noticed that over all the years Mr. Simitian has always embraced all things that grow gobvernment and cost the taxpayers more money. He only changes his color when he senses that it may not be popular anymore. Why even bother to mention it? Mr. Engel got the scent seven years ago as many of us did. :-( Throw the bums out!

Like this comment
Posted by truth
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on May 13, 2010 at 7:25 pm

Simitian is one of the best reps in the state. Don't get all tea bagger on us now Willows.

Like this comment
Posted by Alice
a resident of another community
on May 14, 2010 at 10:48 am

Senator Simitian is the most responsive. His staff answers when contacted.

On the other hand, I have tried to contact Senator Boxer for 18 months with NO response.

Like this comment
Posted by Ted Crocker
a resident of another community
on May 14, 2010 at 4:32 pm

Thus far, coming out against this particular high speed rail project has proven to be anything but popular with our elected officials. Why? Because these elected officials were the same ones promising immediate jobs to the unions for one, counting on "free" money from Washington for two, and signing a stimulus (ARRA) funds application request stating California's HSR project is "shovel ready" for three. All unrealistic and a true indication of how much people have been willing to ignore the realities. Diane Harkey was the first to declare the emperor has no clothes. I suspect the rest are waiting for a way to bow out gracefully, and that ultimately means waiting for the White House to admit that there is not enough money to make the dream a reality, so they in turn can say "Well, we tried." Regardless, hats off to Simitian and Lowenthal for having the nerve to point out the obvious. By delaying further, the White House gets one more try to come up with the funds. Now, if the White House, and ultimately the HSRA, does not perform, will they pull the plug in a timely fashion? Let's hope so.

Like this comment
Posted by Thetruth
a resident of another community
on May 14, 2010 at 5:39 pm

Then I suggest Ted you help in getting HSR properly funded as it should in any other form of transportation from highways to airports...and it will be in the new 2010-11 transportation bill...and wont all the NIMBYS and naysyers/visionless types be so happy!!!

Like this comment
Posted by Ted Crocker
a resident of another community
on May 16, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Dear Thetruth, I'll be the first to admit that HSR cannot be built without subsidy, and that is okay. It's too bad HSR had to be sold to the public in the form of Prop 1A and AB3034 as though they could build it without requiring operating subsidy. ThYet another unrealistic expectation. In fact, that was a big mistake, as it is coming back to bight them. My question to you is where will the money come from? The state and local communities are broke, and I have yet to see a convincing argument for private money to be thrown into the pot without a revenue guaranty of some sort, so that only leaves the fed. I have been leaning on all of my elected officials for nine months now to have the serious talks with the White House. Until recently, the only thing they seemed willing to do was stick their heads in the sand when it came to the realities. $13B over the next five years on a $500B-$1T nationwide system is only enough to start several disasters. Obama needs a HSR success. I do think the elected are starting to pay closer attention thanks in large part to the NIMBYs. This is why Congress wrote a collective letter, dated April 14, to the White House asking for a dedicated source of funding for HSR. In the meanwhile, there is the effort to get a $4B HSR stopgap into next year's budget. Now the real talks begin. I guess I should hold a HSR bake sale, but I might rather give that money to Caltrain.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 16, 2010 at 5:34 pm

Why don't people face the facts - California does not have the population density necessary to support HSR period. No other HSR system in the world serves as low a density population as the proposed HSR corridor and all of them also require subsidies.

HSR sounds nice but it would be a financial disaster for everyone except the right of way property owners and the contractors - who would take the money and run.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 16, 2010 at 5:36 pm

I stated that California does not have the population density to support HSR as compared to France and Japan.

Here are their respective population densities:

California 235.68 people/sq/mi

Japan 873.077

France 1,716.743

Japan is over 3 times as dense and France is 7.5 times as dense as California. And both of their HSR systems are also substantially subsidized.

Like this comment
Posted by POGO
a resident of Woodside: other
on May 16, 2010 at 7:00 pm

Did you know that you can fly from any of the three Bay Area airports to any of the six major Southern California airports for as little as $39 each way? There are close to a hundred flights a day leaving about every 10 minutes and the entire flight takes about an hour.

So tell me again why government is so anxious to spend BILLIONS on high speed rail when private industry already provides so much service, that is so accessible, so fast and so cheap?

I hope I'm not the first to break this news to you, but between the legal challenges ahead and lack of funding, no one reading this post is ever going to ride a high speed train between the Bay Area and Southern California.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 16, 2010 at 7:05 pm

Pogo asks:"why government is so anxious to spend BILLIONS on high speed rail when private industry already provides so much service, that is so accessible, so fast and so cheap?"

It is a scam - the only ones who will benefit are the right of way owners and the planning and construction contractors. The rest of us will be left holding a very expensive and empty bag.

Like this comment
Posted by Bilweb
a resident of another community
on May 17, 2010 at 8:57 pm

It wasn't Dillinger, Marty, it was Willie Sutton.
HSR is Destiny. Either build it now or wait until the price goes up!

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 17, 2010 at 9:12 pm

Bilweb states:"HSR is Destiny. Either build it now or wait until the price goes up!"

Thank you but I'll wait and see. I predict that the price will go up much faster than will the actual demand for HSR services, and therefore the shortfall between cost and revenues will be even bigger.

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

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