By Gennady Sheyner
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.