All nine board members of the controversial California High-Speed Rail Authority may have to find new jobs if a bill introduced Friday by state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) is signed into law.
The bill, SB 517, would disband the beleaguered group and replace it with members who have specific expertise, and who agree to new ethical requirements and are subject to more administrative accountability.
“The high-speed rail project is the most complex transportation project ever undertaken by the state,” said Lowenthal. "As a supporter, I believe the project would be better served if the board members had specific expertise.”
The new board of directors would include a financial expert, an environmental specialist, an attorney familiar with construction law, an engineer with expertise with megaprojects, a business person and representatives from local government and labor.
Lowenthal said that the backlash against the high-speed rail authority began in Palo Alto, where residents who had originally enthusiastically supported the project turned against it when they felt their voices were being ignored.
“It was really a disaster, the way the way they came into Palo Alto and said they were going to build a 30-foot berm,” said Lowenthal, “and people said, 'Not in our community,' and I think it really highlighted to me the need for the high-speed rail authority to be responsive to the needs of the community.”
The City of Mountain View has watched from the sidelines and had not joined any of its neighbor cities in opposition to the High-Speed Rail Authority. According to most of the in December, being part of a collective of cities with Palo Alto could give Mountain View more influence but they don't want to antagonize the authority either.
"If we were part of the consortium, would [Mountain View] be seen as being difficult?" Councilwoman Laura Macias said. "Because we pride ourselves in having a good working relation with HSR."
The new authority would be accountable to the secretary of the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency—an appointee of the governor.
Palo Alto City Councilman Pat Burt, the city’s representative on Peninsula Cities Consortium, welcomed the news.
“Frankly, I think that’s a really strong, solid idea to move the project forward in a more sound and less politicized basis,” said Burt. “Over the last year and a half, we have advocated for a concept like this.”
Having board members with greater expertise has also been strongly advocated by Palo Alto-based (CARRD).
“I think it’s a serious effort to make this a body that’s appropriate to the task,” said CARRD co-founder Elizabeth Alexis. “It’s a big job.”
Alexis noted that having an environmentalist on the board, for example, is “a big deal in the Central Valley.”
Lowenthal hopes that the bill, if passed, will help restore faith in the $43 billion project among Peninsula residents.
“Up until now, people on the Peninsula thought the high-speed rail authority acted in an arrogant manner by coming in and telling people what was gonna happen,” he said. “Decisions were made to meet the needs of the high-speed rail decision makers.”
In addition to chairing the Senate Tranportation Committee, Lowenthal will next week be sworn in as the chairman of the new Senate Select Committee on High Speed Rail.
"I’m looking forward to holding more oversight hearings," he said. "We don’t want decisions made that are based on peoples’ own self-interest."
Lowenthal said he felt the decision to award the first chunk of construction dollars to the Central Valley, for example, was motivated less by good data and more by politics.
"I think the push to make sure we began in the Central Valley was not done because of ridership numbers," he said, "it was done based on pressure from either people who lived in the valley or people who represent the valley."
The sensitivity around those kinds of decisions has in part fueled anti-rail groups such as the Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail and Don't Railroad Us, which organized the "High Speed Boondoggle" rally in November. Numerous Palo Alto council members .
"I don’t refer to it as a boondoggle," said Lowenthal, "but I sure as heck wanna see a real business plan that’s been developed by people that have real expertise in the area."