Bullet Train CEO on War Path

Chris Reed
San Diego Union Tribune editorial writer and former host of KOGO Radio’s “Top Story” weeknight news talk show

Last month’s Los Angeles Times’ bombshell about the state bullet-train project could scarcely have made those in charge of the California High-Speed Rail Authority look worse. The Times reported that in determining who would be chosen to build the first segment of the project from Madera to Fresno, a rail authority committee — after a long, well-publicized public hearing — decided to emphasize competence and design skills by ruling that only the three contractors rated highest in this area would be considered. But the rules were subsequently changed with the bare minimum of publicity. The result was the authority’s favored bidder was the one with the cheapest bid. It was Sylmar-based Tutor Perini — a consortium which had the worst “technical” ranking of any bidder and would have been ineligible under the original rules.

A later Fresno Bee report confirmed the Times’ findings.

The letter-of-the-law defense, delivered righteously

But the rail authority decided the best defense was a good offense. New CEO Jeff Morales was sharply critical of the reporting by the Times. The authority’s argument, boiled down, was that everything it had done was done in satisfaction with authority rules and state laws. Since what was done was by the book, Morales argued, it was outrageous for anyone to suggest there was anything wrong with the decision. Everything was “careful and transparent.”

CHSRA board chairman Dan Richard also offered this critique, suggesting routine decision-making was being depicted as scandalous by out-of-control journalists.

But as Morris Brown detailed on Fox & Hounds, the decision to emphasize technical competence in picking a contractor was done in high-profile fashion, while the the decision to de-emphasize technical competence was buried in a 150-page addendum that was posted on the authority’s website — with no acknowledgement that a major change had been made.

The wrong bunch to claim the moral high ground

But Morales’ and Richard’s strategy of attack isn’t just misleading, based on the background provided by Morris Brown. There’s also this larger context: No state agency in California has less claim to the moral high ground than the California High-Speed Rail Authority. It narrowly won passage of $9.95 billion in state bond fund seed money from state voters in November 2008 after failing to meet a state law requiring that a business plan for the project be made public before the vote.

Within days after the vote, the plan was released — and one of its key provisions was based on the assumption that private investors could be attracted if they were given a ridership guarantee. But such a guarantee would have violated the state law that banned further California taxpayer subsidies of the project. (If ridership guarantees to investors are not met, taxpayers would have to pay investors.)

That is the original sin of the bullet train debate — the rail authority keeping this damning detail from the public.

In the years since, claims and promises made by the rail authority on the bullet train have proven to be grossly wrong — and all in ways that make the project worse. The total project cost is far higher. The individual ticket cost is going to be higher. The number of jobs that will be created is lower. The environmental benefits won’t show up for decades, if then.

But most of all, there’s this: What the CHSRA is building simply isn’t a statewide bullet train.

Like Tony Soprano complaining about crime coverage

The train won’t come even close to connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes, as mandated in the 2008 ballot measure providing the bond seed money. Quentin Kopp, the former state senator and judge who is considered the father of the state’s bullet train dream, is right when he says what’s being contemplated isn’t what he and other original advocates proposed. Instead, it’s a really fast train from Fresno to the northern edge of Los Angeles County, linked to regular rail in Silicon Valley and the Los Angeles metropolitan rail system.

From this perspective, the idea that rail authority honchos Jeff Morales and Dan Richard think they have the stature to lecture state journalists on the problems with their coverage is absurd. It’s like Tony Soprano complaining about the crime coverage in the Newark Star-Ledger.

And even if they did have the stature to righteously attack journalists for their CHSRA coverage, there’s this little problem. In their criticism, they haven’t laid a finger on the Times’ or the Bee’s reporting. Namely, in determining who would be chosen to build the first segment of the project from Merced to Fresno, a rail authority committee decided to emphasize competence and design skills. But the rules were subsequently changed in borderline-surreptitious fashion, and the favored bidder turned out to be the cheapest — and the one judged to have the least competence and design skills.

If Morales and Richard think this isn’t news because none of what was done was illegal, their credibility is even lower than it used to be.

Crossposted CalWatchDog

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