Unlikely Activists Against Rail

NOV. 5, 2010

Elizabeth Alexis and Nadia Naik were lost. Their arms wrapped around folders and laptop computers, they were trying to find Room 447 in the state Capitol. That particular room is in the “old” wing of the Capitol, but they were in the “new” wing, riding the elevator up to the fourth floor. There, confused by four-digit room numbers, they found a kind staffer who escorted them to the old wing, where they soon located Room 447, a cramped hearing room that holds maybe 70 people.

Alexis and Naik, both Palo Alto residents, were at the Capitol on Nov. 4 to attend the monthly meeting of the California High-Speed Rail Authority Board. That meeting was supposed to take place in the much larger Room 4202 at the Capitol, but had been moved at the last moment (indeed, during the meeting a few dozen people not able to squeeze into Room 447 had to stand in the hall and watch the proceedings on closed-circuit television).

Though the room was already packed when they arrived, the two young women quickly found seats in the second row, not far from the table where members of the public can offer comments during hearings. This was good, because both women intended to make sharply critical comments about the rail authority during the hearing.

Alexis and Naik are on uncertain ground where political activism is concerned –they admitted as much to me shortly before the hearing began – but they are nonetheless a dangerous force facing California’s headlong drive to build a 800-mile bullet train system that will cost between $40 billion and $80 billion. Indeed, the very fact that people like Alexis and Naik are speaking out shows just how far off the tracks California’s whole project has slid.

“We actually support high-speed rail,” Alexis, who is an economist, told me before the hearing. “California is supposed to lead on things like this.”

Last year the two women helped found Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD). CARRD should be one of the state rail board’s best allies. The group wants high-speed rail in California developed openly, honestly and efficiently. But instead, people like Alexis and Naik quickly found that the state’s rail planning is anything but open, honest or efficient.

The CARRD Web site offers a dizzying array of topics, some of them highly technical, examining the state’s rail project. Open government, ridership survey, business plan, system requirements and something called “context sensitive solutions” (a collaborative method for developing a complex system) are just a few of the issues CARRD addresses.

CARRD has already proven its importance. After Alexis found so many errors and inconsistencies in the rail authority’s ridership forecast, the state Senate Transportation and Housing Committee asked UC Berkeley to do a formal critique. The university’s findings, released in July, were unequivocal: “The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s forecasts of demand and ridership for a new San Francisco-to-Los Angeles high-speed train are not reliable because they are based on an inconsistent model,” noted a UC Berkeley press release.

But at the hearing, Alexis and Naik talked conflicts of interest – another of their big issues with the rail board.

Alexis started off reminding the board that it’s been 97 days since board members Curt Pringle and Richard Katz (neither of whom were actually at the hearing) first learned that they might be in violation of the state doctrine of incompatible offices. “It’s time to do something about this,” she told the board. Only board member David Crane challenged her, and that was in a hypothetical way.

“Let’s say I’m thinking of running for mayor of San Francisco,” he said. “Is that a conflict?”

“It could be,” Alexis said, refusing to back down. “There are things that are not against the law that are still conflicts. I have a day job and I should be working with my clients but I’m here.”

A few minutes later it was Naik’s turn to speak. She handed a stack of Statements of Economic Interests to the board clerk. She said they came from various officials working for the 130-plus contractors and sub-contractors involved in the rail project, and that they showed numerous “violations” – i.e, contractors accepting gifts in defiance of state regulations. “I ask that [rail CEO Roelof] van Ark look into this,” Naik said. The clerk took the documents, but again, no one on the board said a word.

It’s not like the board isn’t used to hearing about alleged conflicts and scandals. “Residents… need to be sure their money is being spent wisely,” Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, told the board a few minutes before the CARRD activists spoke. “This project has been plagued almost weekly” by revelations and conflicts, he added. Indeed, Hill said that he was shocked to find that board members didn’t have to disclose any consultancy fees they took from rail contractors, and would soon introduce legislation to rectify that.

Since it’s doubtful the rail authority itself will begin actively addressing its own internal conflicts, unlikely activists like Alexis and Naik will be more than happy to continue doing so on their own.

-Anthony Pignataro

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