Senator seeks to revamp rail authority leadership

Proposed bill would replace rail authority's board of directors, create new conflict-of-interest rules

By Gennady Sheyner

Embarcadero Media

The agency charged with building California's high-speed rail system would lose its semi-independent status and see its entire leadership team replaced under a bill proposed by a Southern California state senator.

Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, introduced a bill Thursday that would place the California High-Speed Rail Authority under the umbrella of the state's Business, Transportation and Housing Agency -- the agency that currently includes the Department of Transportation, the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Department of the California Highway Patrol.

Lowenthal's bill would also set new qualification requirements for board members. Currently, the board includes several veteran politicians, including former state Sen. Quentin Kopp, former Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle and former Assemblyman Tom Umberg. Pringle and Umberg currently serve as the authority's chair and vice chair, respectively.

Lowenthal's legislation would require the board members to have experience directly relating to transportation infrastructure. One, for example, would have to be an engineer with experience designing large infrastructure projects; another would be an economist with a transportation background, and another one would be an attorney with expertise in procurement strategies and "construction issues associated with large, one-of-a-kind infrastructure projects."

The board would also include one member with a background in environmental protection and another member who sits on a city council or a county board of supervisors.

Lowenthal has emerged over the past two years as one of the Legislature's leading skeptics about the voter-approved, multi-billion-dollar rail project. Though he supports the project in concept, he has consistently criticized the rail authority's ridership projections, business documents and cost estimates, particularly in the wake of several critical audits of the rail authority.

In November, he and Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, expressed frustration with the rail authority's progress on implementing the recommendations of State Auditor Elaine Howle. At that meeting, he pointed to the rail authority's changing numbers (including a raised cost estimate and higher ticker-fare projections) and said the numbers left him and Simitian "with a sinking feeling that we don't know what to trust and whom to trust."

The bill, SB 517, would also enact a series of conflict-of-interest rules that the rail authority would have to follow, including one that prohibits people from serving on the board if they had received any income from a firm under contract with the authority within two years of the appointment and prohibit members from working for a rail-authority contractor within two years after they leave the board.

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Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Feb 21, 2011 at 4:37 pm

And now, a word from the irascible, cantankerous curmudgeon:

While there is a lot of enthusiasm and support for this effort by Senator Lowenthal -- SB517 -- I regret to say that I don't share it. His intention is to replace the existing Board of the CHSRA, and re-locate that Board within the Department of Business, Transportation and Housing.

Here's why I object to it.

1. I don't want this project managed by anyone else. I don't want this project to exist.

2. I do not believe that this project can be "done right," as Lowenthal and many others of us believe. Therefore, it doesn't matter who manages it.

3. There are mistaken assumptions in the idea that a new, professional management team will do what we HSR critics want, and not do what we don't want. That is naive on our part. It's not the way the world works.

4. What we have now is a chaotic, fumbling, pretentious group of amateur public relations misfits who can only mis-manage this HSR project. They stick their foot in it, daily. That, in fact, is to our advantage in seeking to terminate this project entirely.

5. A management team acceptable to us could very well create a rail route and alignment that we don't want. Then their credibility will remove our basis for further complaining.

6. It is foolish for us to believe that a more professional group of managers will take us more seriously. There is no basis for them to do that. We are the amateurs; they are the professionals. Their job will be to create the most cost/effective HSR project on budget and on time. Our local needs could well be an interference with these goals of the new management group. Only now, we have no one to turn to for support of our continued dissatisfactions.

7. If we seek to terminate this project, as I do, then leaving this presently existing team of incompetents in place serves our purposes. They manage to shoot themselves in the foot in a new way every week. Our intentions benefit from their disastrous performance.

8. The sponsor of this legislation, Alan Lowenthal, wants this high-speed rail project in California, as does Joe Simitian. Some of us don't agree with that. We don't want the project at all; anywhere. That's the whole point of the blog: Web Link

Therefore it is not in our interest to upgrade the management team in order to mitigate the mistakes, lies, and bad judgements of the current rail authority.

9. We want the project terminated, not the management team upgraded. I believe the opportunity for termination is now greater than ever in Washington. Persistent local fumbling will only support our case.

10. Lowenthal doesn't see this project as a boondoggle. I do, as do many others. Boondoggles remain so regardless of how they are managed.

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Posted by Joanna
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Feb 21, 2011 at 5:38 pm

I voted for HSR. The majority of Menlo Park voted for HSR.


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Posted by Younger Curmudgeon
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Feb 21, 2011 at 5:40 pm

Where does Martin live? Next to the Caltrain right of way. He listens to loud horns and diesel engines running on tracks at grade creating a barrier right through the middle of Menlo Park. The dangerous status quo for some odd reason is fine with him. Most of us want something better.

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Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Feb 21, 2011 at 7:17 pm


you want something better? Do you think elevated tracks dividing the city is something better. It's no secret, they will not place these trains in trenches to achieve grade separation. They have already said it is too expensive. Think of a three story building running the length of the town and beyond. Just lovely.


yes the majority of people living in Menlo Park voted for HSR. They were sold a bill of goods. They were lied to about the ridership numbers. They were lied to about the costs and they were lied to about the system being self supporting. Now that the truth is coming out, many who voted for it, oppose it. If they had to feed the public a line of BS to get it passed, what do you think it will REALLY cost? I can tell you. At least three times what we were told and it will NEVER, EVER be self supporting. This in a state that has a 23 billion dollar deficit. Ya, HSR is a great idea. Why don't we just open our wallets and let the state have ALL our money. Like they don't take enough already.

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Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Feb 22, 2011 at 4:50 pm

The issue, my dear Felton Gables friend from across the other side of the tracks, is being avoided here with an innuendo ad hominem attack that ignores the point of this thread.

Shall we stick to the issue, please?

What Lowenthal, doubtlessly with good intentions is providing, is an opportunity to save the project for California. He is a high-speed rail supporter, as is Simitian. They want to remove the thorns in their side, like Van Ark and the rest of the HSR clowns. But they do want the train built.

And that’s the dividing line here. You are either on one side or the other.
There are many so-called objectors in Palo Alto and Menlo Park who want the train “done right” by which they mean, build their way; their route, their alignment. But, they do want the train. Trench, tunnel, stop in San Jose, go up 101, go Altamont, etc. etc.

Been there; done that. Now I’ve moved on. There is more than enough empirical data that tells us that building this train in California – UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES – is a very bad idea, not only for us on the Peninsula, but for all Californians.

Please read the critical assessments that are now available everywhere. Become informed not by smoky, romantic promises and visions of a vague future, but take a hard look at the realities of costs, benefits, and unanticipated consequences when the rail authority, whoever it will be, start digging holes.

The current Board has been lying about everything. But, a new Board telling the truth will not make the train project any more palatable. The facts about it won't change. $100 billion for goodness sake. It will be an obsolete technology in 10 years. It will devastate the environment, urban and rural. You already know all this, don't you?

This issue is much larger than the problems on the Peninsula. This project will irrevocably damage California and further burden its foundering economy.

You, your children and their children will be in hock forever, subsidizing the running of a train for the few riders it carries, and paying the interest on the loans. It shouldn't happen at all. It costs too much and will do too little, except harm.

Fixing the Board by replacing the bad boys with good ones is no solution to this problem.

Read this blog, and keep up with what’s actually going on.
Web Link

Oh, and by the way, do you have a real name? Or are you embarrassed?

Like this comment
Posted by Hank Lawrence
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Feb 23, 2011 at 7:30 am

I don't live anywhere near the Caltrain tracks and Martin Engel is absolutely correct on all accounts. We can not afford high speed rail.

Please read what Alain Enthoven said by clicking on this web link

Web Link

The public was duped with inflated ridership numbers and lowball procurement and operation and maintenance (O&M) costs. For instance how can Gilroy attract more ridership than Baltimore? How can HSR make money when the Washington D.C. New York Amtrak corridor with the highest population density in the United States is losing money? The answer is it can’t and HSR will be an albatross around the necks of every California resident unless we kill it soon.

You always get the most bang for the buck from intra-city transit. That is because far more people go to work than go on trips and the population density of the San Francisco Bay area is far great than the HSR corridor. However the main benefit is keeping traffic off the highways. 101 is at saturation level and can not take any more. If CalTrain goes belly up we will see the worst traffic nightmares beyond anyone’s imagination. We should forget HSR and electrify CalTrain. This subsidy is well worth it in terms of time saved for commuters, carbon footprint reduction, and commuter stress reduction. It is the right thing to do and it is the smart thing to do.

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Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Feb 24, 2011 at 11:03 am

A reconsideration of Senator Alan Lowenthal's legislation, Senate Bill 517, which seeks to can the CHSRA

While this is not new news any longer, it's more important than I first thought. Indeed, I was dismissive of this step and argued in this thread why it was underwhelming.

I apologize and have changed my mind. It is important and here's why. It's a dramatic step by Alan Lowenthal, a leading Democrat. I don't have to belabor the fact that the Democrats in California are dedicated HSR supporters. That's true at the state and at local levels. (People like me are statistical outliers; Democrats who oppose the train.) While Lowenthal has no intention of terminating the HSR project, he is without doubt absolutely fed up with the disgraceful behavior of the CHSRA Board. That's why he is really going out on a limb to have them discharged and replaced. That's politically risky for him.

So, what's good about that? While the problems with the mismanagement, incompetence and deviousness of the rail authority has become well-known in California, it has been assiduously ignored by the US Department of Transportation and the FRA.

They have tossed a number of earmark-like funding awards our way (primarily for political reasons) regardless of the shenanigans and hanky-panky of the rail project's managers in our state, as if that didn't matter to the Democrats in Washington. You would think that if the Mafia had come to California to build a high-speed rail brothel for $100 billion dollars, the DOT would also have funded them with start up funds. OK, that's a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea.

The point here is that Lowenthal's legislation -- SB517 -- is the most definitive expression of concern about a project that certainly should oblige the federal government to reconsider it's awards. I mean reconsider on the merits, not the Republican intention to terminate on sheer cost grounds for deficit reduction purposes. With this bill, we have the State Legislature saying that, although they continue to support HSR development, they reject the developers.

Since California has received the largest portion of federal largesse, presumably based on the compelling case made by the CHSRA in Washington, wouldn't you think that a thorough re-examination of what the feds. believed they were doing is now called for? Hasn't this become a problem for the DOT Inspector General?

The litany of CHSRA problems identified by government agencies in Sacramento, as they say,is as long as your arm. The Legislative Analyst Office, the Inspector General, the State Auditor, the rail authority's own peer review committee, all very unhappy with the way this project has been managed, or, more correctly, mis-managed. And now, after endless State Senate hearings with endless conflicts, demands, and failure to meet those demands, the Legislature has had enough.

Attention Democrats in Washington, take a good, hard second look at what you are funding. If you don't, it will be perceived as your failure and become your embarrassment as we enter the 2012 election season. All this is great ammunition for Republicans. And Lowenthal's bill puts a cap on it. What California is hereby saying is we want the train and the money to build it, but we don't have anyone who can do this right and we're firing the guys who have been screwing it up. This should raise even cynical Washington's eyebrows.

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Posted by Observer
a resident of another community
on Feb 24, 2011 at 2:26 pm

With all that incessant yammering and throwing caution to the wind by mentioning the MAFIA, you attempt to come off as a Champagne Liberal and think this need for HSR is strictly a California thing.
Well, nope, it ain't.
The entire country does not hold its pinky finger out when sipping from a glass filled with liquid gold......they want to make the U.S. and not just this area, have what every other country has and has enjoyed for dozens of years now.
You and your compatriots who hate the HSR for sentimental reasons (POWER AND POSITION)are going to end up throwing in the towel when the bucks you have are worthless.

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

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