California High-Speed Rail: Bills To Shift Bullet Train Oversight Faltering

09/06/2011 07:18 pm ET | Updated Nov 06, 2011

This article comes to us courtesy of California Watch.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority is facing increased scrutiny from lawmakers as the legislative session draws to a close.

Lawmakers proposed several reforms meant to strengthen state oversight of the autonomous rail agency, but with just a week before the end of the 2011 session, the toughest looked unlikely to reach a floor vote, Capitol sources said.

The bills would shift control of the massive, multibillion-dollar project to the governor's office, through the California Department of Transportation, effectively stripping responsibility from the rail board. The power shift was recommended by state budget analysts in a May 10 report from the Legislative Analyst's Office that suggested that Caltrans was better equipped to handle a transportation project of such a large magnitude.

The project's current structure "grants its commission more independence and autonomous decision-making ability than we believe is appropriate for this phase of the project's development," the analyst's office wrote.

"(W)e recommend that the Legislature remove decision-making authority over the high-speed rail project from the HRSA board to ensure that the state's overall interests, including state fiscal concerns, are fully taken into account as the project is developed," the report said.

The prospect for such radical change to the project, however, appears uncertain.

Two bills, AB 145 and SB 517, would put the project under Caltrans' authority. Despite passage in the state Senate, SB 517 is effectively dead in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, said Alicia Trost, spokeswoman for Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. AB 145, meanwhile, is parked in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

One change that looks likely to pass is AB 952, a bill written by Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee. It would ban gifts to members of the rail board, in an attempt to curb the appearance of conflicts of interest.

AB 952 passed the Assembly 78-0 in June and passed the Senate 34-0 on Aug. 22. For now, the measure is stalled until the Assembly signs off on amendments the Senate added.

The issue of gifts came to light last fall, when a Los Angeles Times investigation found that members of the rail authority had taken foreign trips that were paid for by foreign governments, but were unable to produce documentation of the trips. Board members told the Times they were unaware that the practice did not conform to state ethics requirements. The rail authority and individual members did not disclose the donated travel.

The legislation under consideration now also would ban foreign governments from making contributions to the rail authority. Its sponsors include the cities of Atherton and Palo Alto, which have sued the rail authority in an attempt to require it to redo its environmental studies because of what the cities say are flaws in the methodology used to estimate the project's future ridership.

Members, staff and consultants at the rail authority currently are allowed to accept gifts up to $420 in value, but donors can give to the rail authority itself, which distributes the gifts to specific people.

"The assemblyman believes that it's critical that the board function with a high degree of integrity, and they have a fiduciary responsibility to the citizens of California to have some accountability," said Laurie Paredes, a spokeswoman for Jones.

The rail authority has not taken a position on Jones' bill.

"As a policy, we don't comment on pending legislation until it's signed," said rail authority spokeswoman Rachel Wall.

The board decided in May [PDF] to support a similar bill, AB 41, from Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo. That bill would require members of the High-Speed Rail Authority to publicly disclose financial interests that may produce a conflict of interest, as required by the Political Reform Act of 1974. It also requires that members comply with the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act by not communicating with contractors and each other except in manners that are subject to public disclosure, like during public meetings.

Hill's proposal, unlike the others, requires a two-thirds majority vote because it amends the Political Reform Act, an initiative measure that requires a supermajority to alter. It passed the Assembly 60-0 in April but has not yet been taken up by the Senate Rules Committee.

Jones' bill, though, goes in slightly different directions. It would prohibit individual members or staff from receiving gifts and would require the rail authority to receive written approval from the Department of Finance before accepting gifts. It also would ban organizations doing business with the High-Speed Rail Authority from making donations, as well as imposing a three-year "revolving door" ban to prevent former employees from going to work for companies that have relationships with the authority.

AB 145 would place the High-Speed Rail Authority under the jurisdiction of Caltrans. To do that, the bill repeals the original high-speed rail act that state voters passed in 2008 and essentially starts over. The bill specifies that the state Senate must confirm new appointees to the board, though it does not alter the current membership.

Written by Assemblymembers Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach; Cathleen Galgiani, D-Merced; and Richard Gordon, D-Los Altos, AB 145 passed the Assembly 57-18 on June 3.

The High-Speed Rail Authority has not taken a position on the measure, which also would require the agency to annually submit a six-year capital improvement program and progress report to the Legislature.

An alternative bill, SB 517, would more radically restructure the agency. It would place the department under the authority of Caltrans and requires Senate confirmation for board members, but it would remove the board's current members. The High-Speed Rail Authority opposes the bill.

SB 517, from Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, and Steinberg, passed the Senate 26-12 on June 1.

When Brown used his line-item veto authority to reduce from $147 million to $7 million spending to help local transit agencies connect to the future high-speed line, he said the authority needed to collaborate more to make a more comprehensive rail plan.

"As plans for the high-speed route are further developed, the authority should work with local agencies to build mutually beneficial projects," Brown wrote.

Brown told the editorial board of the Fresno Bee on Aug. 18 that he was "working directly with the authority to get their act together," adding that he still supported the proposal.

Sam Pearson is an investigative reporter for California Watch, a project of the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting. Find more California Watch stories here.

Suggest a correction